Hombrecito

[fiction]

I am a little man. That’s what Papi always says. Mijo, you are un hombrecito. That means that I must be strong, never ask for help and—very important—never cry. But my teacher doesn’t understand this and wants to know why I punched Manuel during recess. She says that I need to use my words and not my fists and that talking about the problem might help. I don’t want to tell her anything. My dad says that it’s embarrassing to talk about our problems.

Nothing’s wrong, I say, I’m fine, I won’t do it again.

It doesn’t work. They ask my parents to come to school and they both look upset. Mami brings me to the principal’s office and Papi arrives ten minutes later. He sits across from us. What happened, mijo? I stare at my shoes and tell him that the other kid started it. I close my fists—so tight that my thumbs hurt. But that pain is nothing compared to how I feel about my parents being at school—like being squeezed and pushed out. They don’t need any more problems, they have plenty. I keep looking at my shoes wishing that I could be anywhere but here.

Inside the principal’s office, I sit on the small couch with my mom. My teacher, Mrs. Miller, takes the armchair. The principal tells my dad that there are chairs outside, that if he wouldn’t mind bringing one inside so that he can sit. No, no, I’m okay like this. But before the principal can insist, the school counselor, Mr. Gomez appears at the door, Oh, we need two chairs, I will take care of that. My dad wants to say no again but it’s too late. Mr. Gomez offers him a chair with a big smile on his face. Papi just slurs a quick thank you. The principal starts talking but after a few words, she makes a strange face like the one I make when I have forgotten to do my homework. She looks at my dad. Mr. Suarez, I was told that you speak English, is that correct? My dad nods without looking at her. Then she turns to my mom. Mrs. Suarez, what about you? Mami does not respond, her big eyes distant stars sending distressed signals. Okay, I will speak slowly then. Mr. Suarez and Mr. Gomez, could you please fill her in later? Mr. Gomez is happy to oblige, all teeth and cheerfulness. Papi barely shrugs.

I close my fists—so tight that my thumbs hurt. But that pain is nothing compared to how I feel about my parents being at school—like being squeezed and pushed out. They don’t need any more problems, they have plenty.

I get tired of looking at my shoes so I grab a pen I find on the desk next to me. I play with it and concentrate on the click-click it makes when I push the tiny button. I know they are talking about me but I don’t look up. Everyone’s upset at me right now but in a couple of weeks, some other kid will screw up even worse than I did and then everyone will forget about me. I can’t wait for that to happen—I don’t like people looking at me and bombarding me with questions. Speaking of which, I think Mr. Gomez is asking me something. I just shrug.

That’s not going to work, we need an answer. Why did you punch Manuel?

I keep staring at the pen and just say I don’t know, that I was upset, that it isn’t that big of a deal. They go back to talking to each other and I just stay in silence for the rest of the meeting.

*     *     *

Two weeks later, I am at a counselor’s office all the way across town. While we wait, Papi keeps looking at his watch. He’s missing work because of me. Mami moves around in her chair and gives me a tired smile. We go inside and they ask her to sign a bunch of papers. Some lady is translating the information for her. Mami just nods and signs wherever they point. We then talk to another lady who has huge, thick glasses. She is sitting at her computer and talks to the translator lady who then asks my parents tons of questions. Words and tears spill out of Mami, little diamonds falling down her face. I look at Papi. Arms crossed, he moves his head side to side and stares at the floor. What is Mami doing? We don’t tell our problems to other people. She keeps crying. I don’t want to look anymore. I look out the window—at the trees—the leaves rustling in the wind. But Mami’s crying is still there. It always is.

*     *     *

I start meeting with a counselor once a week. Mami has Wednesdays off so that is when we go. Papi cannot ask for more time off work. I meet Rick by myself and sometimes, he speaks to my mom afterwards with the help of the translator lady who always looks like she has a stomachache. I thought the counselor was going to be mean and tell me what a bad kid I am but it turns out that counselors are very much like art teachers. One day he asks me to draw my house, another day, my family, and another one, my classroom. After I’m done with the drawings, Rick asks me to explain them to him and he also asks about the people in them. I like talking about my drawings. I like that this guy does not ask what is wrong with me. He asks easy questions. I now look forward to talking to him so that I can tell him all about my drawings.

One day, Rick asks what made me draw my father far away from Mami, my brother, and me. I tell him that I don’t know. He asks if I am upset with Papi, if I don’t want him at home anymore. I answer no. I tell him he got it backwards. Papi is the one who’s upset. He is the one who doesn’t want to live with us anymore. Rick asks why. I answer that I’m not sure, that maybe he is tired of my mom always yelling at him. Rick asks if I know why she yells at Papi. I tell him no, that I don’t ask because my dad says is rude to ask people about their problems. When they fight, I just go to my room, put my headphones on and play video games. I tell Rick that I can still hear the yelling through the earphones. He asks me how does that make me feel and I say that I don’t know—I don’t want to talk about this anymore. Rick says okay and asks about my upcoming soccer game.

Rick shows me a video. A boy that looks like he could be my age is playing outside his house, shooting some hoops, smiling. Suddenly, yelling comes from inside the house and the boy starts singing to himself. The ball dribbles faster and faster but the yelling keeps getting louder and louder. Then his dad comes out, slams the door, gets into his car and does not even look at him. At the end of the video, the boy throws the ball over the fence and just sits on the porch with his head down, looking at his shoes.

How do you think the boy feels? Rick asks, like he knew a secret I had yet to discover.

I think he is sad, I say, but then change my mind. No, I think he is angry. I can’t make up my mind and I tell him that I think he is both sad and angry.

What makes him sad and angry?

That his parents are fighting, I guess.

The boy’s sad because his parents are fighting?

No, that makes him angry!

Why is he sad then?

I say that the boy is sad because he thinks that it is his fault that his parents fight all the time. He thinks he’s a bad boy and that’s why his parents yell at each other.

What do you think the boy should do?

I say that I don’t know.

Maybe he could talk to someone? Rick insists.

No, I say, that would be embarrassing for the boy.

But if he’s sad, don’t you think it would be a good idea to ask for help?

No! Men don’t ask for help.

Rick says the boy is not a man. I say that he’s a little man and little men don’t cry and they don’t ask for help. I tell Rick that I have a ton of homework and that I need to leave early. He nods and says that’s fine, that he will see me next week.

*     *     *

For a week I can’t stop thinking about the boy, sitting at that porch while the world around him keeps getting smaller—the sky above him slashed with gray clouds. I want to hug him and tell him that everything’s going to be okay. Rick says that it’s very nice of me to want to comfort the boy. He asks me what else I would say to him.

I’m not sure, I answer.

What if the boy told you he thinks it’s his fault that his mom and dad are fighting?

I say that I would tell him I don’t think that’s true. Adults fight all the time about old people problems and it has nothing to do with the kids. Rick asks if I’m sure about that. I say that yes, I think so.

You are right! It is not the boy’s fault. As a matter of fact, children are never to blame when parents fight.

I nod, suspicious. I’m usually never right.

What about you?

What about me?

Do you think your parents fight because of you?

I look down, shrug and say that sometimes I do.

But you just said that it wasn’t the boy’s fault that their parents were fighting. Why should it be your fault, then?

I don’t know. I start lowering my head so that I can look at the floor but Rick stops me.

Look at me! You need to look at people when they are talking to you. Now listen. Your parents are going through a hard time, and they may fight sometimes because that’s how adults think they can solve their problems. But I want you to understand, it is never your fault. You cannot control what adults do or say. That’s not your job. Do you understand?

I nod slowly. I feel strange, like my chest is about to burst. I’m not sure what’s happening.

You can ask for help. It doesn’t make you any less of a man. It makes you human.

And something else, Rick continues, I want you to pay close attention to what I am about to say because it is very important. Always remember, no matter how much they fight, your parents love you very much. That will never change. Your brother and you are the most important people in the world to them. They may not always act like it, because parents are human and they can make mistakes. But they love you with all their hearts and they want what’s best for you.

Something breaks inside me. I try to stop the tears with my hands. Rick says that it is okay, that I can cry. I say no, that’s not true and I tell him what Papi says.

I’m sure your dad means well, but like I said before, parents don’t know everything and they can make mistakes just like everyone else. Crying does not make you less of a man. For example, what does your mom do when you fall from your bicycle and scrape your knee?

She cleans the wound with warm water.

Does it feel better?

Yes, it calms the pain.

Exactly! It works just the same with the wounds we have inside. Our warm tears help wash the sadness and anger away. If we hold our tears and words for too long, the wound gets infected and it will only hurt more and more. I bet your parents have told you that if your brother or you hurt yourselves when playing, you should ask an adult for help. It isn’t any different when we hurt inside. You can ask for help. It doesn’t make you any less of a man. It makes you human.

I nod. I take a deep breath. And then I cry.

I cry for Mami and Papi. I cry for my little brother and for me. I cry for my family. I cry because it hurts that my parents can’t be friends and I don’t want Papi to leave and I’m afraid I’ll never see him again. I tell all of this to Rick and he says that it’ll be okay. That now that I can talk about what hurts, the pain will get better. He says that I cannot control what my parents decide to do but that I can talk to them about my fears and tell them how I feel when they fight. He says to keep in mind that even though my mom and my dad are older than me, they are still learning how to deal with their problems. But that no matter what happens, I have to remember that they love me, that they will always be there for me, and that I should hold on to that.

*     *     *

A few weeks have passed and things have started to get better. My parents talked to Rick a few times and now they don’t fight as much. When they do, they make sure to come look for me, give me a hug and ask me if I’m okay. This isn’t something easy for Papi. At the beginning he didn’t want to meet with Rick but little by little, he’s becoming less uncomfortable when talking about things. He’s learning just like me and he now understands that it’s okay for a man to be sad sometimes and to want to talk about his problems with other people. I am stronger now because I can help my mom and my dad and give them hugs when I see that they’re sad. I don’t look at my shoes or the floor anymore when people ask me questions. I try to look straight into their eyes, answer their questions, and apologize if I have done something wrong.

That makes me brave, not weak.

That makes me un hombrecito.

 

Melanie Márquez Adams is an MFA candidate in Spanish creative writing and a recipient of the Iowa Arts Fellowship at the University of Iowa. Her short story collection, Mariposas Negras, won Third Place in the 2018 North Texas Book Festival Spanish Fiction Awards. Melanie’s work has appeared in storySouth, Dash, Whale Road Review, Asterix Journal, The Acentos Review, and elsewhere.

Chicken

[fiction]

I was putting on my uniform when I first got the news, my red polo that won’t stop smelling like chicken grease no matter how many times I wash it, and the lingering stink of waffle fries. I told Rosie she was on speaker ‘cause I was getting ready for work, and she said, “Baby, that’s why I’m calling, and I’m telling you right now, you’re not gonna like it.” Can’t pretend I wasn’t shocked. Hurt. Felt dirtier in that uniform than I did after a shift. Felt used. Friends said, “They close on Sundays, of course they hate gay people.” But Mama preached behind the pulpit with her baritone voice my whole life, saying things like, “You can’t say God is perfect and God makes no mistakes and God created everything, then turn around and tell a person they were born wrong.” So I never assumed they had hate in their heart, is all I’m saying. I don’t like assuming anything about anyone I don’t know.

Ever since I can remember, at least twice a year, waking up on a Sunday and walking to church from our little parsonage, only to find “Faggots” or “Fag Lover” or “Fags Go to Hell” spray-painted on the doors.

They say ignorance is bliss and I guess they’re right, but Mama didn’t raise me like that. She wasn’t a preacher who wanted your brain left at the door. She wanted questions and research and asking, asking, asking until you got an honest answer, even if that answer was a truthful I don’t know. So when I heard they were donating to all those hate groups, my queer heart just had to see. Just had to look it up.

The Marriage & Family Legacy Fund and the National Christian Foundation and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Family Research Council and Exodus International and Focus on the Family and Jesus Lord Almighty, no. What are they doing in your name?

The Right got really eager online. “Tomorrow we get up and go, we go to our nearest location and show our support; we thank them for supporting true family values!” And I will never forget walking into work that day, the line so big it moved past the food court and snaked around the corner. Not sure why I was so surprised, what with where Mama and I live. Ever since I can remember, at least twice a year, waking up on a Sunday and walking to church from our little parsonage, only to find “Faggots” or “Fag Lover” or “Fags Go to Hell” spray-painted on the doors. Mama and I and whoever came that morning, our small congregation having church outside that day, painting those doors rainbow and singing hymns. The deacons and deaconesses passing out lemonade and Mama preaching her sermon while applying a second coat of yellow, amen.

But that was a terrible day, that never ending line, me slapping chicken between greasy buns, bagging and handing them off to people who’d smile and give me their “God bless” bull. Those same people who’d hate me had they known the truth, looking in my eyes and smiling like we were best friends or something, or even worse, the ones that said, “Thank you for doing God’s work.” And even my Republican friends behind the counter, laughing behind their backs like, “‘Doing God’s work?’ Didn’t even know about that marriage stuff until yesterday, good Lord.”

But the worst was when someone from our own church turned up, saw me and got all pink at the ears. “Sarah baby, I didn’t know you worked here.”

“Sure do,” I said, and made certain not to look him in the eye.

He got real close then, all whisper like, and to this day I’m not sure who he was protecting, his own reputation or mine. “Hun, I’m not here for any kind of political statement. You know how much I love you and your mama and even your Rosie. It’s just cheap and good and our favorite quick and easy, you know? It really don’t mean anything.”

“I know,” I said, but when I still didn’t look at him, he took the bag from my hand harder than he had to and leaned in even closer. “Not like you’re any better, working here and everything,” and stormed away. Mama and I haven’t seen him in church since.

All my life I’ve been so grateful for her, watching and fearing my friends with their fire and brimstone daddies, so grateful for my mama and her big heart. That’s the heart I don’t want hurting.

I was mad when it happened because I’d only just found out, too. Didn’t apply for the job knowing where all that money was going, but weeks have passed and I still haven’t quit. You see those mega churches on TV with those six-bedroom mansions to one married couple? Don’t let them fool you. Pastors don’t make that kind of money, only TV evangelicals who prey on the poor and vulnerable. Pastors in the real world are busy cutting coupons and dipping into their savings to pay a car bill, knowing deep down they won’t ever get to retire, not really, and see . . . it’s just me and Mama, or at least that’s what I keep telling myself. I don’t eat there on my breaks anymore, but you know who still does? Rosie. We fought over it just last week. And I know she’s not the only one of us who thinks the whole thing’s silly, likes to tell me boycotting’s no good anyway, and c’mon, Sarah, what’s the big deal?

I’ve been looking for another job, but it’s damn near impossible around here. Mama says to quit and protect my heart from hurting, but last week I saw her filling out applications for the gas station around the corner, and I will not let her do that, no ma’am. All my life I’ve been so grateful for her, watching and fearing my friends with their fire and brimstone daddies, so grateful for my mama and her big heart. That’s the heart I don’t want hurting. So I’m still here, still smiling and ringing up the same people that probably spray-painted our church’s doors, still pouring lemonade and ignoring Rosie’s calls, still serving up food that’s just as chicken as me.

 

Diana Clark is an elephant enthusiast and an MFA fiction candidate at UNCW, with special love for LGBTQIA+ literature, magical realism, and sci-fi. Her work has appeared in Crab Fat Magazine, Peach Mag, The Passed Note, Heavy Feather Review, Okay Donkey, Longleaf Review, and more. In 2015, her piece “Singed” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. You can find her reading about pirates in Wilmington, North Carolina with her cat, Emily D.

Laura, Keeper of the Red Pandas

[creative nonfiction]

Before I talk about Halloween and Corey Fisher and the two of us in the coat closet dressed as toilet paper mummies, let me start with Mom. Mom grew up in Chicago. As a teenager, she worked summers at Brookfield zoo. Head zookeeper of the petting zoo.

All her stories from that time start with “Once we had.”

“Once we had a baby elephant that stole a woman’s purse.”

“Once we had a baby kangaroo that jumped into a woman’s arms”

Once Mom bought me a pop-up book named Mammals of the World. I was five, earning a reputation as the “kissy girl” because I kissed Alfonso five times on the cheek. I asked another friend if I could see his underwear. Big deal. If my curiosity about Alfonso or the underwear had been a zoo, it would be that dinky fifteen acre “zoological park” in Amarillo with the boring Longhorns and Monkey Island.

When I was five, I opened Mammals of the World and saw a red panda. This curiosity was different than the underwear and kisses. It grew and grew until it became the size of the National Zoo. One hundred and sixty-three acres. An enclosure of pandas and Lemur Island. My life’s mission revealed itself. Become a zoo keeper. Live among the red pandas.

Now, I’m ten. Behind my belly button the call of the red pandas still purrs. And I hear it loudest when I steal glances at my friends’ bras and touch the logos on their chests.

The sounds are familiar. Thirty minutes ago familiar, when Corey Fisher walked in on me changing. Corey’s eyes widened as I stood before him, nipples bare as the swinging tits of the Monkey Island spider monkeys.

So what has me pulling at my fingernails tonight is whether or not I feel the purring with Corey Fisher. Corey Fisher who apparently forgets how to knock on a bedroom door before entering. Corey Fisher who said we should TP ourselves, hide in the coat closet, jump out, and scare the trick-or-treaters. He said that could be our act in the haunted house his mom and my mom have put together. Which is why his mom is standing at the front door, ready to greet the trick-or-treaters, while my mom waits down the hallway. And Corey and I are in the coat closet, ribs cage to cage, among my parents’ forgotten winter coats, rain slickers, and church jackets. One of Mom’s shoulder-padded jacket butts against my face. I punch it away. The jacket rebounds from the closet wall, hits my neck.

“Back! Stay back,” Corey says, elbowing a ski jacket. He’s eleven. He’s tall enough to reach the closet’s top shelf, where Mom keeps her animal hats. Flamingos, ducks, and crabs.

Once my family had a dog who liked to raid the guinea pig burial site. When we returned home, she gave herself away by hiding in the bedroom.

Not Corey.

Since the incident, he hasn’t blushed, avoided, or apologized. I huff. Cross my arms and think about the autobiography Mom and I wrote for English homework last night. The paper started with Mammals of the World and ended with me becoming head keeper for the red pandas at the National Zoo.

Once, Corey told me that when he’s an adult, he’s going to own five chinchillas. I raise both my eyebrows at him. A house of chinchillas compared to a life spent among the red pandas—

“Do you hear that?” He says, interrupting my thoughts.

I shake the dust out of my head. “No, I don’t hear anything.”

“I think I hear someone coming up the breezeway!”

The doorbell rings.

“They’re here!” Corey sings, squeezing further back behind the ski jacket. I sigh and let the shoulder pad win the fight for my face. Mrs. Fisher opens the front door. There’s a chorus of kid-voices shouting, “Trick-or-Treat!”

She chimes, “Welcome to our haunted house.” She’s dressed as a pumpkin. She’s wearing a blimp, orange pillowcase with black triangle eyes and a mouth that would not get A+ stickers at the dentist.

Last year, Mrs. Fisher was my fourth-grade teacher. I met Corey when his family popped into our house for dinner. Surprise! My mom isn’t any regular PTA mom. Not only did she start up an animal program at my elementary school and organize ferrets, bearded dragons, even a chinchilla into the classrooms, but, then at the end of the school year, she invited my teacher over for dinner.

Mom and Mrs. Fisher became BFFs. Corey’s younger sister and my younger sister Kristin became BFFs. Corey and I are as close to BFFs as I can be with a boy that has cooties.

In the closet, we hear the shuffle of the trick-or-treaters coming inside. “I will be your tour guide for your stay here,” Mrs. Fisher says and lets out a throaty high-pitched cackle. One of the trick-or-treaters proclaims they’re not scared. I think just wait. Last year, Mrs. Fisher caught me pinching my friend Crystal’s butt, and I saw exactly how scary she could be.

“What do we have here?” Mrs. Fisher says. “A T-Rex and… a jackrabbit?”

“I’m a Jackalope,” the kid squeaks.

“Only in Texas.”

Corey starts jiggling his leg. “It’s almost time,” he whispers, even though it’s not. Mom still has her bit of the routine to do. I slump into the jacket’s shoulder pad. Rotate my head and gaze through my left eye at Corey. My belly starts to chatter and trill.

Once we had matching BFF rope bracelets, but now I don’t know what’s going on. I furrow my eyebrows and glare. You listen here, Corey Fisher, I think, I don’t know what zoo this curiosity with you is building, but this kissy girl only wants the National Zoo. I want to feed red pandas their daily 200,000 bamboo leaves. Pet their red fur. Feel my curiosity pop out from the imaginary of books and into the real.

In the entryway, Mrs. Fisher says, “And now, I want you to meet my sister.”

On cue, Mom goes “whoooo” from the hallway. She’s abandoned her baggy khakis and animal shirts and gone rogue, borrowing a red belly dance costume, which she threw over a white turtle neck and leggings. I picture all five feet ten inches of her dancing down the hallway, her long legs like stilts. Permed duck fluff crowns her head.

“Hellooooo,” Mom moans to the trick-or-treaters. “I’m the older sister, Genie.” No one lectured Mom to be scary. We figured the turtleneck was frightening enough. “I want to introduce you to another member of our family.”

Well-rehearsed, Corey and I know now is when Mom pulls a picture frame from behind her back. She slowly rotates the frame to show the trick-or-treaters my dead grandfather.

The audience gasps.

“This is our Dad!” Mom howls.

“Oh, how we miss him!” shrieks Mrs. Fisher.

“He died seven years ago!” Mom wails.

Corey pokes my ribs. “It’s almost time,” he whispers. Excitement runs like static electricity from his squirming arms to the ski jacket to the shoulder pad to my face. My belly starts to chatter and bellow. The sounds are familiar. Thirty minutes ago familiar, when Corey Fisher walked in on me changing. Corey’s eyes widened as I stood before him, nipples bare as the swinging tits of the Monkey Island spider monkeys.

When I was five, I opened Mammals of the World and saw a red panda. This curiosity was different than the underwear and kisses.

For a second, I was lock-limbed. When I snapped awake, I laughed and told Corey to get out. I dove headfirst into a long-sleeved shirt. The door shut. Against the itchy fabric, I heard the bellowing of whatever was caught in my stomach.

And now, with those same sounds whirring in my belly, clarity comes to me as a zoo park map spread behind my eyes.

The chattering—Monkey Island. The bellowing—the long horn cows. My eyes fly open. I see Corey with his hand on the door handle. I step away from him, back into the shoulder pad. No, I think. This kissy girl isn’t going anywhere.

“Now,” Mrs. Fisher says. “There’s one more member of our family we want you to meet. You’ve met my sister Genie…”

“Ooooooooo,” sings Mom.

“Our father…”

Mrs. Fisher inhales. In that pause I imagine all the mummy toilet paper falling away. I imagine stepping instead into a zoo keeper costume. Khaki pants. Green shirt with white National Zoo lettering.

Laura, Keeper of Red Pandas. Kissy girl no longer.

“Now, we want you to meet the last member of our family. Meet our mummy!”

The red panda keeper leaps ahead of Corey. She jumps out of the closet, raises her arms, and screams, “BOO.”

All the zoo sounds from my belly stampeded into the entryway. The shrieks from the children. The high-pitched peals of Mrs. Fisher’s laughter. Corey wheezing as he doubles over on the floor. My mother’s throaty wailing.

In my autobiography, I became a zoo keeper like my mom. I got married. My husband and I moved together to Nepal so I could study red pandas in the wild.

What if your husband just died, Mom had asked while we were writing. Wouldn’t that be so weird and funny? Yes, yes, yes, I’d said, howling. That would be hilarious.

We wrote the scene like this: one day, my husband and I were in the forest, scouting for red pandas. Then soldiers appeared. They shot him.

I spent my life living among the red pandas.

Mrs. Fisher hands the trick-or-treaters their Kit-Kats and Reese’s. Corey snatches a handful of candy for himself and dashes into the coat closet. “C’mon Laura,” he calls. “I think I hear the next batch.”

Instead, I step toward Mom. I take her hand. Mom twirls me under her puffy, red belly-dancer sleeve. I spin in the orange light and know that at the next sleepover, I’ll ask my friends to show me their bras. I’ll ask them to show me their arm pit hair.

The next wave of trick-or-treaters comes up the breezeway. Mrs. Fisher says, “Quick, quick, get in your places,” so I skip over to the coat closet as Mom dances back up the hallway. Corey perches next to the shoulder pad. I stand by the door. I put my hand on the handle. Hear the wild red panda purr of my stomach. “Welcome to our haunted house,” cackles Mrs. Fisher. Laura, Keeper of the Red Pandas, grins.

 

Laura is a queer writer from the Texas Panhandle. She is currently residing in the Idaho Panhandle, and in addition to cooking with pans with handles, enjoys teaching theater to elementary students and co-hosting Moscow’s first queer reading series: POP-UP PROSE. To read more of her work, check out the NonBinary Review or The Manifest-Station and her Patreon page: patreon.com/lauragould and sign up if you’d like to receive her monthly stories in the mail.

Katie’s Songs

[fiction]

Katie turned up her music and pressed her headphones against her ears. It didn’t help; she still heard her brother yelling in the hallway, pacing, slamming his fists into the bannister. He stomped up the hall, slammed twice, stomped back, slammed three times. Repeat, repeat. Until he stopped panicking. Until he exhausted himself.

Her mother murmured down the hall and her brother roared in response. Ben never hurt anyone else. He was a yeller and a smasher, and sometimes hurt himself, punching his fist into his forehead over and over. But he had never hurt her or their mom. Still, Katie felt sick every time.

Her mom spoke again, this time closer to the door, loud enough that Katie could hear actual words now. Her mom apologized to Ben, explained in soft words. He groaned but slowed down. Katie pictured how tight his neck and arm muscles were. Pictured him shaking his head and fluttering his fingers in front of his mouth.

All of a sudden a sharp rebuke: “Do not go into Katie’s room, Ben!”

That would set him off all over again, so Katie bolted to the door and opened it, pretending to be surprised to see him.

“Hey! I need your help with something. Are you busy?” She grabbed her laptop off her bed and handed it to him.

 

Katie pictured how tight his neck and arm muscles were. Pictured him shaking his head and fluttering his fingers in front of his mouth.

“What? Okay.” He was confused but distracted. Good. Her mom stuck her head in and Katie motioned her away. She held out her hand to her brother.

“Can I touch your arm?”

He nodded, his shoulders lowering and his fists unclenching. She pressed her hand firmly into the top of his forearm. “Come over and look at my running mix? I’m stuck and you always pick the best songs.”

Ben walked straight to her desk and sat down. He opened her laptop and examined her incomplete playlist for Saturday’s race.

“Katie, this has no flow. This is terrible.” His blunt assessment was classic Ben, but she heard a hint of eagerness underneath his words. The hour-long meltdown was over. This was a job, a puzzle to solve, and her brother lived for this stuff.

“I’ll fix it for you.” He picked up the laptop and started walking out.

“Wait!”

He froze.

“You’re supposed to ask me. We need to be on the same page, remember?”

“Ah, right. Sorry, Katie.” Ben peeked at her face, observing, evaluating, and she knew he was trying to figure out if she was mad. “You wanted me to fix this, right? It’s okay that I take it and fix it?”

“Yes, big brother. I want you to fix it. Make the songs really good. I need ten miles of inspiration.” She opened her arms wide and he grimaced and laughed at the same time. “Oh, come on. Please?”

“Katie, gross, no.” But he kept laughing.

“I’m totally going in for a hug!” She made snuggly arms in his direction, and he yelped and took off out the door and down the hall. Six foot three inches of skinny, anxious brother fleeing her embrace.

And now the night was okay. Her mom stood in the hall, watching Katie with a tired expression.

“You’re so good with him.”

“He’s mad about camp, huh?” Katie asked, ignoring the resentment in her mom’s voice.

“Yes. Dr. Kelly says he needs it, though.” Her mom sank onto her bed and put her head on Katie’s shoulder.

“I’ll talk to him later,” Katie said.

“Thank you. You’re the best.”

Katie patted her mom’s back awkwardly. She wished she would do something mom-ish instead of needing to be soothed.

“You finished your homework?” That felt a little better.

“Yeah, Ava and I did it after school.”

“Great. I’ll leave you be, then.”

“Okay,” Katie said.

She pulled her headphones back on as her mom left. Ben was right. The music was uninspiring. Each song sounded the same.

“KATIE!”

She jumped up from her bed, her heart racing all over again. She tore off her headphones and glared at her brother, who stood in the doorway, waving his arms.

“What is your problem, Ben?? You gave me a heart attack!”

“Well you’re alive, so I seriously doubt I gave you a heart attack. Also, I called you ten times. I need to ask you some questions about your race.”

She took a deep breath. “Okay. Questions. Try to talk quietly. You’re freaking me out tonight.”

“I’m sorry.” He sat down next to her, his eyes wide. “Are you really freaking out? Was it my yelling? When I was mad at Mom?” His anxiety bubbled out in fluttering, clutching fingers.

“It’s okay. Don’t stress.” Katie could not soothe one more person tonight.

 

“I’m not laughing at you.” She hugged him back—hard, the only way he could handle an embrace. “I’m laughing because today was the worst and you’re the only person who can ever make me feel better.”

Ben took a deep breath and put her laptop on the floor.

“What are you doing?” she asked, reaching for it, when all of a sudden, his arms engulfed her. “AHHHH! BEN!”

“You’re freaking out, so I’m hugging you to make you feel better!” He squeezed so hard she could barely breathe, and she grabbed his arms to loosen his hold.

She looked up at his earnest, solemn face and burst out laughing. He frowned. She laughed harder and couldn’t stop, even as he grew annoyed.

“You shouldn’t laugh at a person who is choosing your happiness over their own comfort,” he informed her haughtily, dropping his arms.

“I’m not laughing at you.” She hugged him back—hard, the only way he could handle an embrace. “I’m laughing because today was the worst and you’re the only person who can ever make me feel better.”

“Oh,” he said, then smiled and picked up her laptop. “See, I’m good for something!”

“Ben, you’re good for almost everything.” Katie gave him one last squeeze and let go. “So what did you want to ask me?”

“I’m going through songs mile by mile. Two or three songs per mile based on your pace. And I want to know which miles you expect to be harder than others, so I know when to use longer ones.”

Oh, Ben. He was quite literally the only person on this planet who consistently cared about what was best for her. Her heart thumped.

She gave him her race plan and he worked quietly next to her. Searching and typing, finding the songs he knew would be just right. His unyielding focus was his superpower in tasks like this, so Katie knew better than to interrupt. She curled up behind him on her bed, listening to her underwhelming music, and zoned out as she watched him work.

She felt cozy and safe for the first time all day. And when she drifted to sleep, it was an easy, mellow repose, with dreams of her and Ben as little kids.

 

Hannah Grieco is a writer and education and disability advocate in Arlington, VA. Her work can be read in Washington Post’s “On Parenting,” Huffington Post, Motherly, Arlington MagazineHobart Pulp, and Scout Media’s 2019 anthology A Flash of Words.

Drought

[fiction]

Since coming here, the bright red-orange of my skin has begun to fade into a washed out but stubborn stain. The gold of my eyes, too, has dulled to a yellowish brown.

This place—they call it a school. We’ve been here almost a year now, and on my first day of class, as we sat in the rows of desks facing a woman with colorless skin and yellow hair, I raised my hand and asked, “Why is it spelled with an h?”

She blinked at me. Those strangely colored eyes—blue, they call it. “What, honey?”

I wanted to ask what honey was too, but I knew it was better to go one question at a time. “Why does school have an h in it if we don’t pronounce it?”

She smiled at me as though I’d finally discovered some far-flung moon that she’d known about for ages now. “That’s because it’s a silent letter, honey.”

A silent letter. Who had ever heard of such a ridiculous thing? That’s what I thought then, except now I am beginning to think differently. I like silent letters, how they hide within words and within sounds, the way you cannot see them in speech but you know they’re there. If you don’t know the silent letters in a word, then you don’t really know the word at all.

I have silent letters in me, too, I think. Things I have tucked away in my mind that the teachers and doctors can’t see. I can do nothing about the loss of my red-orange coloring or the golden glow of my eyes, but my memories—I can hold on to them, as best I can, for as long as I can. I clutch at them in desperation, as though my sheer force of will can keep them alive in my mind.

*     *     *

In the dark of our dormitory, everyone is stirring restlessly. The low rumble of thunder drives the fearful youngest girls to me, and I am sitting up in my bed with children in my lap. They are too young to remember that this thunder heralds the coming of the red rains. Too young to recall the time before they came—the colonists from Earth. 

I whisper about the night sky after the red rains—a sky so black and clear and glittering that it kissed the breath right out of my mouth.

“Mar…Mar…” someone whimpers as thunder rattles the building. I hear pattering feet running down the aisle, and a little girl crawls up into my bed beside me. Emily.

Mar. They mean Margaret, which is and is not my name. The school assigned us names when we arrived, sullen-faced, teary-eyed. Fearful, wary. I am Margaret, my brother Harry, and some days I almost forget I was ever called anything else, in a language utterly different from English. But living at school, constantly hearing and reading and speaking and writing in English, I have begun to lose my mother tongue. But I suppose Margaret is not too terrible of a name—mostly because it contains within it Mar. Almost like Mars, which is the name the colonists call this planet. My home. I would like to think that even in unnaming and renaming me, the colonists have failed to erase who I am, where I come from.

A loud crack of thunder startles someone into crying. Lightning illuminates the dormitory in stark, harsh whiteness. In the flash, I see that all the older girls, like me, are sitting up in bed. Their faces are turned towards the window, their faces hungry. Waiting. We remember what the red rains are like.

“Shh,” I whisper to the crying girl, smoothing her hair. The littlest ones don’t speak anything but English now, but when they first came they hardly spoke it at all. I, having the best grasp on English out of all of us, helped them along, and since then they have always clung to me. “Shh. It’s the red rains coming.”

“Red rains?”

I lean forwards and begin to tell the little girls congregated around me about what it was like before the Earth colonists came. In all honesty, even my own memories of that long-gone era are limited and fading into fantastical glimmers, but I do my best. I whisper into the dark about the canals, how they filled to the brim once a year when the red rains came in wonderful torrents, how we all went swimming. This, I do remember. How could I not? The cool water, the splashing and laughing, all of us washing reddish dust from our skin and faces. My mother’s hair fanning out around her head as she floated. My brother spewing a stream of water from his mouth at me, his eyes bright and glimmering with excitement.

I whisper about the night sky after the red rains—a sky so black and clear and glittering that it kissed the breath right out of my mouth. My father and I would stand on the red rocks or climb the crimson dunes to marvel at the stars. They all had names and stories, but I’ve forgotten.

“Mar?” A thin, high voice.

“Yes?” I say.

“Will we get to go and play in the canals too?”

I close my eyes. Thunder calls out again in its booming, commanding voice, summoning me to come outside and dance in the red rains, to soak the color back into my fading skin, and I ache with the longing.

The answer is, of course, no. The time of playing in canals and standing on the dunes is over now. I take the little girl’s hand and stay silent. I don’t have the heart to tell the truth. I don’t have the heart to tell a lie that will only disappoint.

*     *     *

The colonists came without warning, one day, simply dropping out of the sky. I was inside, chattering to my mother about what my friend and I were planning to do for her birthday, when a deafening roaring exploded into the air and there was a crash so loud and strong it swallowed up every other sound. A wave of force, a ripple coursing through the ground beneath our feet, threw us down roughly. Dazed, I watched a great cloud of red-orange dust engulf the world. I remember coughing so hard that tears came to my eyes, the feel of the gentle weight of my mother’s trembling hand resting on my back. I remember the moment I finally drew in a breath and could breathe, remember thinking I’m alive, not knowing…not knowing, not knowing what was coming.

We ventured outside, hand-in-hand, my mother gripping me so hard I thought all the bones in my fingers would splinter and shatter. She had lovely skin, my mother—a deep scarlet, with an undercurrent of bright copper.

The cloud of dust thinned. All our neighbors were there too, gathered around nervous and dusty before a strange thing of metal and wire and who knew what else. A spaceship, later, is what I learned it was called. But I didn’t know that then, and English was strange and foreign, that day when the spaceship came and the hatch opened slowly with a hiss. I wanted to laugh when I saw them, climbing out in bulky white suits, their heads encased in what looked like bubbles.

After a moment, one of the beings lifted a hand in greeting and spoke, a crackly transmitted voice breaking the silence.

*     *     *

From Earth, with peace. That was the first line the Earth colonists spoke, though of course we didn’t understand it then. That is the line now written on our dormitory doors, painted on our classroom walls, and blinking on the screens in the doctors’ offices. But those words were not supposed to be the first ones spoken on Mars, I learned. The first words were supposed to be the same words uttered by some other space traveler from Earth, Neil something-or-other, who had either strong arms or legs. I can never remember which. I asked a doctor about it once when I went for my check-up, and he only laughed at me. The doctors like me, because they like the fading color of my skin and eyes. They like that they have successfully corrected my gait.

Corrected. They don’t know that I only walk the way they want me to so I can avoid having to go back to the physical therapist. But in the dormitory, at night, when the matron has turned the light out and left the room, I loop around the beds to comfort the littlest girls and walk in our usual loping, sloping gait. I refuse to lose that, too.

From Earth, with peace—an improvised line, because the colonists had no idea we already lived on Mars. I, too, improvise, as I tell the girls stories about the stars and give them silly names. I say when the stars cry from laughing so hard, their tears fall down to Mars as the red rains.

“Only once a year,” I whisper. “Stars are so serious that it’s hard to get them to laugh that hard.”

The first rain drops, fat and ruby colored, splatter against the window. My mother’s face swims before my eyes. My brother, howling into the sky with glee, pointing at the churning clouds as the rain pours down.

Someone gets up. I hear her feet hit the floor, and as she passes by my bed, I recognize her. Veronica. We were best friends once, before we were turned into Veronica and Margaret, before she stopped speaking altogether when we came to the school. She won’t walk the way they want her to. They send her back, over and over again, to the therapist.

Much of her extended family has managed to avoid the fate which has befallen the rest of us. In the days after the colonists first arrived, the leaders and councils met to discuss and debate, so heatedly it’s a surprise they didn’t spark a wildfire. Some, wary and mistrustful of the newcomers from Earth, wanted us to all disappear, migrating to the mountains or going underground into the ancient tunnels. Some, including my parents, argued that it would be best to coexist with the colonists, who seemed peaceful and harmless enough. My mother pitied them, those poor weak-lunged souls who struggled to breathe our air properly. We ought to help them, and maybe they can help us too.

With horror, the colonists pointed to our red-orange skin, our elongated limbs and faces, our four-fingered hands, the loping gait with which we walked. Discolored. Disfigured. Disabled. Or so they said.

My family stayed. So did Veronica’s, but most of her relatives left to go underground, where cities now unfold beneath the unsuspecting colonists’ feet. We should have gone too, but it was too late by the time we realized that the kind of help the colonists wanted to offer us was not the kind we wanted or needed. They had censuses, registration, numbers to keep track, charts about population growth. We could no longer merely disappear without attracting attention and search parties and investigations.

I watch Veronica make her way to the far end of the room. She stands on tiptoes and unlatches the window as the pane rattles from the rumbling thunder. Her hands are shaking as she opens the window and reaches out to let droplets fall on her palm. A gust of wind blasts in and I draw in a deep breath, desperately trying to fill my lungs with cold, rain-scented air, so different from the sterilized thin oxygen we breathe in here. The wind smells of the dunes, and I think I can even feel some of the dust on my skin.

When the rains come, the underground rivers will swell and overflow, and perhaps there will be dancing and swimming and singing in the tunnels.

Not so for us.

*     *     *

They came to take us away a year ago. Before that, for a while already, we had been going to English classes the colonists facilitated, and although I knew vaguely that ours was an uneasy peace, I was blissfully unconcerned. The teachers were kind and friendly, the new language enthralling, and as one of the fastest learners, I took home spelling and grammar tests decorated with gold stars.

But then something happened, something which knocked every gold star out of the sky of my imagination and slapped the smiles off my teachers’ faces. A doctor happened to test a child for a disease and found, instead, high levels of a chemical in his skin and hair. From lab results, the colonists argued that the chemical was in our water, in our red rain—a chemical that discolored, disfigured, and disabled.

With horror, the colonists pointed to our red-orange skin, our elongated limbs and faces, our four-fingered hands, the loping gait with which we walked. Discolored. Disfigured. Disabled. Or so they said.

There were rumors of children being seized and taken away in the name of sanitation and schooling, a secular sort of salvation intended to ensure that following generations might be whole and healthy. I watched my parents worry and whisper night after night. They kept my brother and me from going to our English classes, and as fear wrapped its noose around my neck, my brother and I took to sleeping huddled up so that if we were taken in the night, we would at least be taken together.

But it was morning when they came, announcing themselves by way of a raucous knocking on the door. My father froze and shouted, “Coming! Coming!” in accented English while my mother herded my brother and me into a cupboard. My hands were sweating and trembling, and I held my breath. I remember my brother pressing a crumbling rock into my palm as though somehow he had known we would be torn from the land we knew and loved, and I brought it to my nose, breathing in the familiar smell of Mars while unfamiliar, unfriendly footsteps stomped around outside. Loud voices. Slamming. Where are the children? The question punched me right in the gut; it slammed its fist into the table, and then the cupboard doors were wrenched open and light poured in. I was screaming, thrashing, as rough hands descended on me in an iron grip. The world blurred through my tears. My mother’s hands, reaching for mine, knocked away. My brother shrieking my name. My father, asking, “Where? Where?” Where are you taking them? I bit my tongue on accident, pain exploding in my mouth, the taste of salt and blood as I choked on a scream.

*     *     *

The rock my brother gave me—I dropped it, somehow, in the scuffle, but it would have been confiscated anyway. At the school, I stood in a line with other girls in the cold inspection hall, shivering. My hands were coated in red dust from the rock.

It took three teachers and a doctor to make me wash my hands.

*     *     *

The rain falls harder, singing a humming song that intensifies. Veronica puts her wet hands to her cheeks.

The dormitory stirs as thunder bellows triumphantly and lightning cracks the world in two. Wind blows rain into the room, and dozens of feet hit the floor all at once as we all run towards the open window. The older girls hold the younger ones, helping them reach the window and cup their hands to catch the rainwater, before they themselves lean dangerously far out to let the rain run down their faces like tears after a long and weary day. Someone is singing, though the rain carries the words away, and from where I stand, I can only hear the ghost of a melody.

I tremble with anticipation as the crowd shifts and I move forward. The silent letters in me stir like desert flowers waking up from the dry season, unfurling shriveled leaves towards a sky heavy with rain. I am so parched. I didn’t know it till now, how much of a desert this place is—I’ve kept my focus on surviving, on holding on to what I can, for so long that I didn’t realize I was clutching dry bones. Everything in me is crying out now, begging for the red rains to pour over them and make them like new, pleading that I sing them out into the storm.

At the window at last, the wind blasts my hair back and kisses my face with rain, welcoming me into its embrace. I cling to the windowsill. I want the storm to tuck me into the crook of its elbow and cradle me, rock me. Is it tears or rain that runs down my face?

I uncurl my fingers from the sill. A door opens, slams. I reach out a shaking hand towards the rain. Footsteps. Cold, lovely drops fall hard and fast into my open palm like gems and I open my mouth to laugh or to weep, I don’t know which, and then someone yanks me back by the shoulders, shouting, “Margaret!” and I am knocked aside onto the floor.

The matron screams, “Don’t you know how dangerous this rain is?” She slams the window shut. The force of it is enough to jolt silent letters out of their places. To rattle them. To cast them on frigid tile and dash them into pieces.

Outside, the rain knocks on the window pane, asking to come in.

 

Chihye Naomi Kim is currently a sophomore at Brown University studying English. Her writing appears in Post- and Cornerstone, both publications at Brown University. Two of her short stories have been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards with a National Silver medal and a National Gold medal.

 

Our First Market Day

[fiction]

Dad and I move wicker baskets from our van to the tent. Dad’s jerking baskets too hard. Apples fall out and roll across pavement.

“Strawberries go on the short table,” I say. He’d placed them on the higher table, where we put the jam display.

“Move them then,” he grunts. He pulls out another basket. He isn’t talking much. He had to drink a pot of coffee just to drive here.

I switch the strawberry flats and jam, making sure the jam labels face toward customers. Puddles spot the brick path that circles the farmers’ tents, but the sky has some blue spots. Maybe customers will stick their necks out from under their logs. Mom used to say that, last summer, and every summer I can remember, when she led market day. She died in March from breast cancer.

“We need the tent flaps,” I tell Dad. The green flaps, which attach to the tent sides, hang down so rain won’t get on the produce or us.

“Left them at home,” Dad says. He heaves out the final basket. “We’ll be fine.”

You’ll be fine. I’ll get wet.”

Dad drops the basket, hard. He probably bruised the apples. He stretches out a hand. “It’s not raining. And it’s not forecasted to rain.”

“And forecasts are always right.” I want him to tell me to stop being sarcastic. He hasn’t corrected me in months.

A black-haired girl and her lip-pierced boyfriend squat to smell strawberries. My dad turns, yanks his jacket off the back door of the van, and puts it on. Like me, he hates talking to customers. We both like farm work—tilling, weeding, picking apples, pruning. But he told me this year I was in charge at the market. “This is all I’m asking you to do,” he said.

“I’m going to rest,” he says. “Don’t leave the stand.”

“Where else would I go?” I ask.

Last week, I heard Dad tell Grandpa over the phone that he’d put nonorganic fertilizer on the orchard next year. He said organic produce hadn’t done Mom any good. Mom had argued that cancer was complicated. I wasn’t sure who was right.

The driver’s side door slams. Inside the car, Tug, our small black mutt, whines. We got him a year ago, when Mom said she needed some happy thing around when Dad and I weren’t home. I wish Tug could hang out outside with me, but he can’t be near the food.

Across the way, at the McCulla stand, Cody, a kid my age, unloads baskets of lettuce. He doesn’t have to stay. Soon he’ll be skateboarding, eating at a food cart, or hanging out by the river. Last year, I went with him. I learned to skate a bit. We poked around a bookstore. This morning he hasn’t looked at me.

Some older lady approaches. Her beady eyes seem familiar. She looks me over like she’s here to buy me.

“How are you, Hayley?” she asks. “It’s Cecilia, remember? Our daughter had a baby, so we’re visiting.” She purses her lips. “You look so much older, dear.”

“Hi.” Is it a compliment that I look older? I don’t think she meant it as one.

“How are your parents?”

I throw a thumb over my shoulder. “My dad’s in the van. Can I help you?”

“And you’re manning the stand. You’ll be just like your mom soon.”

She’s wrong. I’ll never be like my mom. And this lady only knows my name because my mom had never met a stranger.

“I’ll take this bag of apples and this,” Cecilia says. Her vein-ridden hands cover a quart of strawberries.

I charge her three dollars for the strawberries and weigh the apples. “First of the season,” I say, meaning the strawberries, not the apples. The apples are from last fall.

“You sound like your mother,” she says.

That is something my mom would have said. I don’t want to repeat her. I already hear her sayings every day, like song lyrics I can’t get out of my head.

Cecilia takes the paper bag full of produce. “Tell your mom I said hello. Next time, we’ll bring our grandson with us.”

If I give her encouragement, she’ll pull out the kid’s picture. I step under the tent and check Dad’s cell phone. “Sure. Have a good day.”

It’s only 9:30. Still over two hours. And I’m already hungry. I chew hard on my gum.

Cody’s gone from the McCulla stand. He’s probably getting food.

Some tall lady with manicured nails steps under our tent. “Is your produce organic?” she asks.

A USDA organic sign hangs on our tent pole. “Yeah,” I say, pointing.

She punctures an apple with a nail. “You sure? These apples seem small.”

I cross my arms. Organic doesn’t mean large and without blemishes. My mom explained this so many times, always patient, but on the way home, she’d laugh. “When will they understand that natural doesn’t mean perfect?”

“If you want your produce to look good get it at the grocery store. Organic produce tastes better and is better for you, but it goes bad faster and is smaller and weirdly shaped and has more bruises.” I use my rudest tone of voice, hoping she’ll go away

“Is one of your parents here?” she asks. “I have questions about organic farming.”

I sigh. Last week, I heard Dad tell Grandpa over the phone that he’d put nonorganic fertilizer on the orchard next year. He said organic produce hadn’t done Mom any good. Mom had argued that cancer was complicated. I wasn’t sure who was right.

“Excuse me? Can I speak with one of your parents?”

“I’ll get my dad.” I don’t care if I wake him.

I open the driver’s side door. The seat’s tilted back. His shirt, hiked up, reveals black, matted stomach hair.

“Dad,” I shake his shoulder. “Dad. Some lady has questions.”

He opens his eyes but wakes slowly. I’m used to this. On Friday nights he sits in his recliner and drinks himself silly. “Only on Fridays,” he tells me when he brings home a case of beer. “They can’t worry if it’s only on Fridays.”

“A lady has questions,” I say again.

“Can’t you answer them?” He’s bothered, but not mad. I wonder if punching him would do it.

“Come on.”

He shakes his head, hard. As Dad steps outside, Tug jumps into Dad’s warm seat and rolls over. Before I shut the door, I give him a scratch on the belly.

The lady yells Dad a question before he reaches the stand. He answers it, and she shoots him another. I bet she’s one of those customers who want to know organic farming so she can brag at some book club. For me, the conversation’s an opportunity to escape. I slip away, hoping to find Cody.

I pick up an apple and push my thumb into its bruises. I throw it at the back of our van. It bangs against the tinted window. I throw three more before Dad comes out.

I walk downhill, jump over puddles, zigzag in and out of one-way streets. It’s started misting. I pull my beanie lower, over my eyebrows. Soon, I’m among a block of food carts. I circle them, looking for Cody. I finally find him skulking around some bike racks. I cross my arms and stand on a nearby greenway, pushing raindrops off blades of grass with my tennis shoe.

Bikes pack the racks. A few dogs are tied on it, too. Rubber bands hang off Cody’s wrist. A beagle paws at his mouth, trying to get something off. Cody kneels next to a miniature poodle and begins to cinch its mouth shut with a rubber band. I can’t believe it.

“What’re you doing?” I ask.

His shoulders jerk around, his face calm. “Leave me alone.”

“They can’t breathe very well. And they can’t bark.” I start to walk around Cody to the beagle, but he blocks me with his body.

“How many dogs have you done this to?” I ask. Cody doesn’t answer. I pull off my beanie and smack him in the eyes. I’ve heard people have gone blind this way. I hope I can blind him.

“Jesus,” Cody says. He doubles over, hands over face. I pull the rubber band off the beagle’s month and scratch behind its ears. Cody stands and turns. I flick the rubber band toward his head. He blocks it with his hand.

“Stop hurting the dogs.”

“They’re not your dogs.”

“They’re someone’s dogs.”

“I’m not hurting you.” He smirks. “Didn’t your dad tell you not to leave the stand?”

“Shut up.” I reach for the rubber bands on his wrist. He smacks my arm away.

A man, unleashing his dog, looks over. Cody and I both glance his way. “This kid—” I say.

“Shut up,” Cody says.

He takes off running in one direction, I in another. I jog through the market, passing tents selling jewelry and incense and jackets. Once I hit the streets, I head uphill, jaywalking back and forth. I want to hold Tug and bury my face in his fur. He’s the only thing that’s comforted me since Mom died.

Back at our stand four people are waiting. Dad’s nowhere to be seen.

I weigh produce and say what people owe. If I talk too much I’ll cry. Before too long customers are wandering away. Vendors punch out water from their sagging canvas tent tops. One quart of our strawberries, jam, and a dozen apples remain. Cody hasn’t returned.

I take a few strawberries and squash them until it looks like my hands are covered in blood. “Look Mom I’m bleeding,” I used to say, holding out strawberry-covered hands. She knew me too well; I could never trick her. I grab more strawberries, throw them on the pavement, and smash them with my shoe. I drag my foot underneath the tent. Red streaks start strong and fade, like wet bike tire tracks. I toss down another handful and make more lines across the pavement.

A white-haired vendor, packaging up goat cheese, stares.

“Leftovers,” I tell her.

“They were perfectly fine,” she says. “I hope you’ll clean up.”

I squat and squeeze a few bruised apples. These weren’t perfectly fine; Dad had ruined them by not being gentle. I remember when I helped pick apples for the first time. I dropped them on top of one another into the barrels. “Set them down gently,” Dad had said.

I pick up an apple and push my thumb into its bruises. I throw it at the back of our van. It bangs against the tinted window. I throw three more before Dad comes out. His black hair sticks up. He glances at the red streaks on the pavement and the chunks of apples. I aim another apple at the window. It bounces against it, then off Dad’s head.

“What the hell?”

“Oh, hi. I thought you were asleep.”

“You’re ruining good produce.”

“You ruined it first. Throwing the baskets around.”

Dad steps toward me and grabs a shoulder. I shrug away.

“You’re making a scene,” he says. “There’s no need to make a scene here.”

“You don’t want me to make a scene anywhere.” I cross my arms and glance at the goat-cheese lady, then at my strawberry-stained tennis shoes. Dad’s staring at me.

I look up. “We’re gonna lose money this summer because Mom’s not here.”

Dad looks down and touches his shoe against the red.

We toss the smashed fruit in a garbage bag for our compost pile. We put away the cash box, the leftover produce, the signs, the tent. Every item has its own spot in the van. We’ve done this with Mom so many times.

I walk to the van, open the passenger’s side, and climb in. Tug’s curled on the driver’s seat, and I pet him. I close my eyes and don’t open them when the driver’s side door opens and shuts or when Tug jumps onto the floor. Dad’s breath is labored, like he just picked barrels of apples. I’m also breathing hard. I take my beanie from my back pocket, put it on, and pull it low over my eyes.

His breath slows. I peek at him. He’s clenching the bottom of the steering wheel and staring at rain streaks on the windshield. I pet Tug with my shoe.

Three years ago I had an outburst like this. Dad spanked me with a spatula. I was a bratty kid sick of chores who had uprooted unripe carrots. He must know I’m older now, that this is such a different thing.

“It’s been a hard year,” he says. “It’s amazing that we have a crop.” He runs his hands up and down the steering wheel.

I move into the center seat, where I used to sit between him and Mom. Tug jumps into the passenger’s seat. Dad’s hands drop off the wheel. I want to lean against him, and for him to put his arm around me. Instead, I place a hand on Tug’s head.

We’re all sitting like this when some market monitor knocks on the driver’s side window. My dad cracks his door. “We’ll pick it up and be gone by one, like every week,” he says. The market monitor leaves.

My dad says he’ll pick up the strawberry pieces if I get the apples. I tell him I can handle that. We toss the smashed fruit in a garbage bag for our compost pile. We put away the cash box, the leftover produce, the signs, the tent. Every item has its own spot in the van. We’ve done this with mom so many times.

After everything is stowed, we get in the car. Dad drives a few yards, and stops. We both look back, like we do every week, to make sure we didn’t leave anything.

“Strawberry juice,” I say.

“Don’t worry. The rain will wash it off.”

I don’t know if I believe him. Mom could never get strawberry stains off my shirts. But maybe pavement is different. I hope so.

On our hour drive home Tug sits in my lap. I stare out my window. Dad keeps glancing over. Maybe he’s thinking about me. That would make me happy. I pull down the visor and open its mirror to see if there’s any happiness in my eyes.

 

Rachel King is a writer and editor who lives in her hometown, Portland, Oregon. Her fiction has appeared in One Story, Flyway, the Concho River Review, Farallon Review, Ashland Creek Press’s Among Animals 2 anthology, and the Museum of Americana. It was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Her poetry chapbook Between Work and Light is available from Dancing Girl Press. Find out more at booksrachelking.com.

irl

[fiction]

January 1

Liz: Happy new year!!!
Alyssa: Not yet here ☹ What’s the future like?
Liz: Wild. People are leaving this party in hovercars. Pretty sure we just achieved world peace. We all have teleportation bracelets now.
Alyssa: Great! So you can come celebrate with me?
Liz: I wish!

“Lyyyssaaa.”

Isaac drops onto the couch beside me. We’re in Nicole’s family’s den along with most of the sophomore class. Isaac swings his legs up onto my lap, and I almost shove him off, but his eyes are drooping closed and he looks almost sweet. As sweet as Isaac can look.

“Who’re you texting? Everyone you know is here.”

“Maybe that’s why I need to be on my phone,” I say, poking his knee. “To get away from all of y’all.”

“More like to get away from me.” He turns his head to the side so his voice comes out pillow-muffled. “Hurts, Lyssa.”

Now I do want to shove his legs off. But I’m pretty sure he’s asleep, all of a sudden. And maybe drunk. He didn’t mean it. He might not even remember saying it tomorrow, and knowing Isaac, even if he does he’ll pretend he doesn’t.

I’m not trying to get away from Isaac all the time. Or any of my friends here—“real-life friends,” my mom calls them. I’d rather Liz be a real-life friend, too. But she happens to live in Connecticut, not north Texas. And I would definitely rather talk to her than maybe-drunk Isaac. So.

I open her video message before the new texts. It’s some girl—I think her friend Taylor—literally dancing on a table. Liz turns the camera on herself making a Can you believe? face. It’s hard to tell if she’s making fun of Taylor or laughing along. It’s hard not to feel jealous.

Liz: So how’s your party?
Liz: Aly?
Liz: Alyssa Rae, are you alive?
Liz: Oh, God. Did Isaac finally try to kiss you?
Alyssa: Hey, sorry
Alyssa: What??? No!!!
Liz: Okay, okay! I’m just saying, that’s happening.
Alyssa: It is not!!
Liz: Suuure. I’m from the future, remember? I can see things.
Alyssa: I like teleporting Liz way better than fake fortuneteller Liz

 

January 6

I swear I was getting ready for school, but it started to feel like too much. Struggling through math 2, Isaac’s neediness, no-phones-in-class—the only class I want to go to at all is choir, and that was barely enough to propel me out of bed. Now I’m lying on my stomach on the floor, half-dressed.

Alyssa: Uuuuuuugh I don’t want to go to schoooool
Liz: Hmm, how sad for you.
Liz: If only you lived somewhere with snow days.
Liz: Like Connecticut! Random example.
Alyssa: Hey, speaking of that. Your spring break is the same week as mine
Liz: Yeah…
Alyssa: So I was talking to my mom about spring break
Liz: YEAH…
Alyssa: So what if I came to visit?
Liz: !!!!!!! SHUT UP!!!!!!
Liz: Are you serious!??? Your mom said you can come??? I’ll ask my parents today!!!
Alyssa: ?
Liz: ???

I push myself up from the floor, pull a sweater over my head, and run down the hall to the kitchen, where Mom is examining a box of Pop Tarts.

“Breakfast to go?” she asks, shaking the box at me. “There’s bananas, too. Your lunch is in the fridge.”

“Thanks.” I grab a banana and turn to the fridge. The blast of cold air steels my resolve. “Hey, Mom. You know my friend Liz?”

“The girl from your choir class?”

“No, the one, uh—the one who watched Grey’s Anatomy with me?”

“Oh, your internet friend.”

I close the fridge behind me. “Yeah, my friend from Connecticut. So, her parents—did you know her dad is a pastor?”

Mom raises her eyebrows at me. “You may have mentioned that.”

“Right, they’re like…good people. Anyway, me and Liz have the same spring break, and her parents invited me to visit them that week, and I was wondering if I can go. Please say yes?”

She takes a long sip of coffee. She’s going to say no. Of course she’s going to say no. I clear my throat and try to turn it into a convincing cough so I can stay home sick to recover.

“I’d like to talk to her parents,” Mom says.

“You—what?”

“Liz’s parents. I’d like to have a conversation with them. Make sure they’re real?” She keeps her voice light, like she’s joking, and I know she’s not really, but it’s okay. She’s just being a mom. A good, great, amazing mom. I feel a smile creeping across my face.

“Is that a yes?”

“It’s not a no. For now.”

I throw my arms around her and don’t even care if she splashes coffee on my sweater and I have to walk around school like that all day. I can do that. I can do anything to make it to spring break.

 

January 10

Alyssa: So, I think our moms are about to be bffs
Liz: Oh my God, my parents are SO EXCITED. You’d think they were the ones about to meet their soultwin.
Alyssa: But they’re noooot, weeee aaaaare!!!!
Liz: WOOOOO
Liz: Gotta run, but I’ll video call when I’m home tonight and the adults can make their love connection. Cool?
Alyssa: Yep! After they approve the best spring break ever, are you free to watch something? I got a new bootleg…
Liz: omg shut up. What is it.
Alyssa: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Liz: Off-Broadway? Actual Broadway?
Alyssa: You’ll just have to see. Get excited…
Liz: OMG. DO YOU HAVE EVAN HANSON.
Alyssa: Oh, God, no. Not that excited.

*     *     *

“Are you sure she was going to call? Maybe they’re waiting for us to call them.”

I shake my head without looking up, eyes glued to the still screen of my phone. “No, she definitely said she’d call. She must just be running late. They probably thought we meant seven our time, not theirs.”

I want her to understand that Liz isn’t like that, she wouldn’t stand me up or forget about me.

Mom doesn’t point out that I’ve already said that three times or that it’s now 7:26 here. Which makes it 8:26 in Connecticut. It’s cool, I’m sure she just—something. There’s something dumb and we’ll all be laughing about it soon. Any minute.

A little before 7:45, Mom stands and picks her book up from the coffee table. “I’m going to go read in bed,” she says. “Come get me if she calls, okay?”

“I’m sure she’ll call,” I reply, fast. And then, finally, the thought occurs to me, and I look up from the phone screen with wide eyes. “Oh, my God, Mom—do you think something happened? Like, to one of her parents? Medical emergency?”

“I certainly hope not. I’ll pray for them, all right?” She leans down to give me a hug, made awkward by me hunching over the phone. “Love you, Lyss. I hope she calls soon.”

By the time I realize that Mom feels sorry for me, she’s in her bedroom with the door closed. I want her to understand that Liz isn’t like that, she wouldn’t stand me up or forget about me. I mean, one day last year we were supposed to talk after my choir concert and she got invited out at the last minute and did that instead. But she at least texted me about it. And we barely knew each other then, not like now.

I’ll tell her in the morning. Liz wouldn’t do this to me.

 

January 11

“Mr. Matthews told me you failed the EOC last semester.”

Startled, I look up to stare at Isaac. “What? Did not. Why would he tell you that, even if I had?”

“Because he knew you wouldn’t listen if he tried to tell you. Because you haven’t heard anything anyone’s said to you all day. Because you’re off in Lyssa Land?”

I roll my eyes and shove my phone in my pocket. “You’re such a baby.”

You’re such a baby,” he mimics in a baby voice.

“Wow, Isaac, I forgot how much fun you are to talk to,” I snap. “You’re totally right, I should pay attention to you all the time.”

Isaac opens his mouth, closes it again. He takes a fry off my paper plate. He wants to call me a bitch, because I’m being one. He won’t, though.

“You’re being kind of bitchy,” he says. Quietly, mumbling, around a mouthful of soggy potato, but still. It surprises me.

And it gives me an excuse to get out of here. I shove my chair back from our cafeteria table.

“Hey, hang on, sorry.” Isaac pats my empty seat. “No more fry stealing. No more name calling. Stick around.”

“No, thanks.”

“You’ve just been weird all day. I get it, I know you’re worried about Lacy.” He winces right away because he knows I know he knows her name is Liz; who’s the bitch?

I leave the fries. He doesn’t try to call me back again as I exit.

*     *     *

Alyssa: Starting to get worried. Please call me or something?

*     *     *

Ten minutes left of lunch. I sit against the wall next to the water fountain between the gym and the science wing, where I can stay hidden if I skip my next class, and consider the possibilities.

One: Liz’s phone died/broke/got stolen. Only she would have gotten in touch with me some other way.

Two: Liz is mad at me. That would be new, her being so mad at me that she would ghost me like this. But it can’t be anything we wouldn’t be able to fix.

Three:

The sixty-second warning bell rings. I jump to my feet and run for my next class. No reason to skip unless something was happening, some major, life-changing thing. And it’s not.

*     *     *

Alyssa: If I did something to make you mad, I’m sorry. You know I didn’t mean to.

*     *     *

Nicole comes up to me before the bell rings for choir to start. I’m slumped in my rehearsal chair, arms crossed over my stomach, giving off the strongest leave me alone vibe I can manage. I don’t look up as she approaches, or when she stops a foot or so away, or when she clears her throat like maybe I’m ignoring her by accident.

“Hey,” she says. “You okay?”

“Did Isaac get you to ask me that?”

She doesn’t answer, which means yes.

“Tell him I don’t want to talk to him, either,” I say. To her credit, she not only takes the hint, she spreads the word. No one comes near me for the rest of class.

*     *     *

Alyssa: Was it weird, inviting myself there for spring break? That was too much, right? Did your parents think it was weird? I’m sorry. We don’t have to…whatever. Anything.

*     *     *

I stare at my face in the grimy bathroom mirror. Nothing’s wrong, I keep reminding myself. I don’t know what happened, but that doesn’t mean something Happened.

“Nothing’s wrong.”

Mirror Alyssa nods.

“She’s going to call you soon.”

Mirror Alyssa nods again, but she looks a little skeptical.

*     *     *

Alyssa: Please text me back.

*     *     *

The third time my mom suggests it after dinner, I give in. I’ll video call her. She has an Android, or maybe even like a Windows phone or something, and I know it gives her problems sometimes. Maybe she’s receiving stuff but can’t send anything, so an incoming video call would go through, in theory.

There’s half a ring and then it disconnects. Her phone isn’t even turned on.

 

January 12

Alyssa: Is this like the time I trash talked Captain America on my blog and you stopped talking to me?
Alyssa: I went back through my blog and I haven’t really ranted about anything lately, so I can’t figure out what it could be. Maybe I said something harsh on a video call?
Alyssa: If it’s something like that, you can tell me, okay?

*     *     *

Isaac asks if I’m free after school and there’s no reason to say I’m not. Plus, he says we can do whatever I want to do. He feels bad about yesterday, even though he was right, mostly.

We watch my bootleg of Anastasia. It’s not awesome, but I pretend to be super into it every time Isaac gives me a sideways look to see if I think it’s awesome. It’s like I’m punishing him, even though I invited him over to try to make up for being the way I was being at school. I can’t decide what to feel about him.

He falls asleep on my shoulder. I wake him up for the final number. I don’t tag along when my mom drives him home.

I feel so guilty about watching the bootleg without Liz, I throw up in the toilet.

She still hasn’t texted by the time I fall asleep, sometime after one in the morning. Sometime after two, in Connecticut.

 

January 13

Friends of Liz,

I don’t know how to write this post. I almost didn’t. But that seemed too shitty, so. Here’s something shitty that I hope will at least be better than radio silence.

Liz passed away the night of the 10th. I don’t think she suffered, it was fast, from what I heard.

Her blog is going to stay up because I think she’d want that. She loved a lot of weird shit, so this is kind of like…a memorial to all her weird obsessions. It won’t be updated after this, obviously, but it will be here. If that helps.

If you were friends with Liz irl, there will be funeral details and everything posted to her facebook as soon as that’s all sorted out.

I’m sorry there’s not more to say. I love her. I miss her.

-Taylor (Liz’s friend)

I keep refreshing the page and it keeps staying the same. The pastel orange background, the icon of her standing by the ocean in a hoodie. The post. Every time I refresh.

 

January 14

I can’t go to school. I can’t even get out of bed.

Mom bugs me about it—“What’s wrong? If you don’t tell me what’s wrong, I can’t do anything about it.”—until I show her the post on my phone. She gets really quiet. She runs her hand over my hair and I don’t shake her off. I think she cries; I hear her sniffle. I haven’t cried, still.

After a while, she puts the phone down on my nightstand and leaves, because it turns out she can’t do anything about it no matter what.

 

January 15

Alyssa: I swear to God Liz if this is a prank or some kind of “joke”
Alyssa: I know some of your friends there have awful senses of humor but this is too mean
Alyssa: Was it Taylor’s idea?
Alyssa: Do you know that what I keep thinking about is her being the one who knows your blog password?

The tears that haven’t come for days are waterfalling now, and it feels unfair because they’re not even the sad tears she deserves, they’re hot huge angry tears because I am so angry at Isaac, and that Liz’s tears showed up for him instead just makes me cry harder.

 

January 16

Mom says two sick days at the beginning of the semester is enough. She’s right, and she sounds sorry, but I still slam the door when I leave to catch the bus. It makes me feel better for two seconds.

Isaac is all over me as soon as I walk through the front door. He’s all, “Oh my God, where have you been, were you sick, you look fine, well actually you look really tired, sorry I’m not trying to be an ass, but you didn’t answer my texts, what happened to you that you wouldn’t tell your best friend,” and I just open my locker and pull out my books because I don’t have the energy for him right now, and when I close the locker he’s looking at me like I am so stupid, and it makes me take a step backward.

“It’s your imaginary friend,” he says. “Right? What, did you like, have a fight about which guy on whatever TV show is the hottest and she set her status to offline?”

The last couple of words die out and the look on his face says that the look on mine is bad. The tears that haven’t come for days are waterfalling now, and it feels unfair because they’re not even the sad tears she deserves, they’re hot huge angry tears because I am so angry at Isaac, and that Liz’s tears showed up for him instead just makes me cry harder.

“Hey,” he says. “Lyssa, no, I’m s—”

“Don’t.” I smack away his hand when he reaches for me. “You’re not sorry. And I hate ‘Lyssa.’”

“What? No you don’t. I’ve always called you Lyssa.”

“I’ve always hated it!” I’m screaming, having a full-on meltdown in the sophomore locker hallway, and I can’t stop. “Alyssa is my name, and I like Aly, which you should know if you love me so much. But you don’t, Isaac. You’re just here.” The word breaks my voice, breaks something in my heart that was holding on by a thread. “You’re not my best friend. You’re just here. You’re still here.”

*     *     *

Isaac: Alyssa, please pick up. Your mom told me about Liz. I’m so sorry.
Isaac: Come on. Please. You know me. I have a big, stupid mouth. You know I didn’t mean it.

 

January 18

Alyssa: I tried to video call you again. Dunno why. Your phone is off.
Alyssa: Tried to find your parents, like on Facebook, but you know what? I don’t know your last name. Mine is Robinson. I’ve been trying to think of who I should tell that, in case…whatever. I can’t think of anyone.
Alyssa: I checked your blog but the same post is still the most recent thing. I don’t even know how to get in touch with Taylor.

*     *     *

There’s a text from Mom on my phone when I check after first block. She loves me so much and she’s praying for me. She sent it right after I left the house, but my phone’s been on silent. She’s worried about me. I’m worried about me, too.

I don’t want to feel this bad anymore. But I’m also afraid of who I’ll be when I start to not feel this bad.

 

January 21

Alyssa: Was your funeral nice? Is that a good thing to wish for a funeral? Is your mom doing okay? I don’t know if my mom would be. She’s barely okay now. I wish you were here to talk about it. If you could just skip the dead thing for a while? I’d be okay with haunting.

 

January 25

Alyssa: I really miss you, Liz.

 

January 26

The look on Isaac’s face when I sit down at our table almost makes me laugh. If I wasn’t still mad at him and also so sad forever.

“Mind if I sit here?”

“Of course.” He grimaces. “I mean, of course not. I don’t mind. Of course you can sit here.”

“Chill, God.”

We spend most of lunch in silence, him watching me, me watching my sandwich. He asks how the semester’s going; I shrug because I haven’t really been paying attention. He tells a story about something Nicole did in P.E. I laugh in the pauses. I try to figure out if I missed him or just couldn’t spend another day sitting in the corner of the library. He doesn’t mention Liz.

Until the bell rings and we file out toward the lockers.

“Ly—” He cuts himself off. “Alyssa. I really am sorry about your friend. I want to… Just, I don’t know. If you need anything, I’m, uh. Here.”

I nod, perform something like a smile. “Thanks. I know.”

He lifts his arms in my direction, and I’m surprised by how relieved I feel when I step into the hug. I rest my cheek on his shoulder and just breathe, and I feel better. Not good. Definitely better.

As I pull away, Isaac starts to turn his face. Toward my face. With his eyes closed and his mouth doing something that looks like—

“Oh, my God! You are not trying to kiss me!”

He jumps back like I’m electric, and I might be. “No! I mean, maybe, but only because—I thought, I don’t know, you seemed…”

“Sad,” I provide after he trails off. “Really fucking sad because my friend is dead and my other friend is acting like a jealous asshole about it.”

He’s the one who walks away from me. Good.

*     *    *

Alyssa: Dear Liz. You were right, you bitch. Isaac tried to kiss me today. Basically because I’m sad about you. Did you know that would be part of it, in your super special fortune telling?
Alyssa: I have to stop being sad about you. I mean, I’ll never stop being sad about you. But I can’t keep doing this thing where I visit your blog all the time and keep checking for texts from you in the middle of classes and, like, don’t pay attention to my life. My Texas life. You know? So. I’m writing to say goodbye.
Alyssa: It sucks so much that I didn’t get to say goodbye to you.
Alyssa: Or tell you about stupid Isaac and his stupid kiss face. How did you know? And what am I supposed to do now?
Alyssa: I love you. Bye, Liz. <3 Alyssa

 

January 28

One (1) New Message: Liz

I can’t stop staring at my phone. It’s out on my desk, which is not really allowed in this class, but I can’t put it away. If I don’t check every couple of seconds, the message will disappear. Or I’ll wake up? Neither of which I want. Both of which I want. I feel sick.

It’s Liz’s number. I checked. Double-checked.

Two (2) New Messages: Liz

I get yelled at three times to put my phone away. I spend lunch in the bathroom, staring between myself in the mirror and the name of the ghost on my phone. Can’t open it. Can’t leave it sitting there. Finally, I lock myself in a stall.

Liz: Alyssa?
Liz: Sorry to text you from this number, I know that’s shitty. I’m finally going through some of her stuff, and I saw your messages. This is Taylor.
Alyssa: Liz’s Taylor?
Liz: Ha, yeah. That’s funny. She called you her Alyssa.
Liz: Not funny, I guess. Sorry. Sorry, this is so weird, probably.
Liz: I just wanted to…I don’t know. Can I text you?
Alyssa: ???
Liz: I mean from my phone. Instead of this.
Alyssa: Oh. Yeah. Yeah, please.
Liz: k. I’m in class now, but I’ll text you later.

 

January 29

Isaac is getting annoyed with me ignoring him through lunch to text. Pre-failed-kiss Isaac would ask if I’d moved on to a new imaginary friend already. New Year’s Isaac would whine that I would rather talk to literally anyone than him. This Isaac just eats his chicken nuggets.

It’s weird. Texting Taylor. Like we don’t really have anything to say to each other that’s not about our mutual dead friend, and neither of us wants to bring it up. But there’s only so much hey, how’s it going I can take.

Alyssa: Hey, so, I don’t mean to be a bitch, but I just need to ask. What happened? To Liz?
Taylor: Car crash. She was in the backseat. Her parents are okay. Well, they’re not, but you know what I mean.
Alyssa: That’s it? A car crash? Some drunk asshole running a red light?
Taylor: Sober asshole. But yeah.
Alyssa: That’s…so stupid.
Taylor: Weak, right? Don’t you feel like she deserved something cooler than that?
Alyssa: Or, like, to not die.
Taylor: Or that.
Alyssa: That is seriously unfair, though. She would’ve been so pissed.
Taylor: I know, right?

 

January 30

Taylor: You know Liz was a writer?
Alyssa: Um. I was her first reader for every fanfic she wrote.
Taylor: Right.
Taylor: I mean, I read her stuff, too.
Alyssa: k.
Taylor: Anyway. She was working on something. A fic for one of the superhero shows, I think.
Alyssa: I know.
Taylor: I figured you knew. I’m trying to, like.
Taylor: I can’t find it.
Alyssa: What?
Taylor: She never posted it, and I looked for it on her computer but her file names are so random, and I can’t find it. And I need to read it. You know?
Alyssa: I have it. I’ll send it to you.
Taylor: Really?
Alyssa: Yeah, of course. Give me a sec
Taylor: Thank you.
Alyssa: It’s really, really good
Taylor: Of course it is.

*     *     *

 

“Is the chicken that bad?”

I’ve barely touched dinner, but Mom’s smiling when I look up. I still say sorry and set the phone down.

“You and Isaac are getting along again?”

“Huh?”

“Isaac,” she says, pointing her fork at the phone. “Your thumbs are flying. Friends again?”

“Because I only have one friend who could possibly text me?”

She gives me a look that’s somewhere between rolling her eyes at me and afraid she’s actually upset me. “I just noticed he hasn’t been around lately.”

I chew until she breaks eye contact. After I swallow, I say, “Texting a girl in my bio class about homework.”

Mom makes a joke about hoping she’s helping me and not the other way around. I don’t know why I lied. It’s a little embarrassing, maybe, hanging onto my dead friend’s friend like a lifeline. Maybe a little scary. And maybe I want to keep this for myself, for a while. Just to be safe.

*     *     *

Taylor: Still awake over there?
Alyssa: It’s earlier here, ha
Taylor: No, I know. 1:30 is still on the late side. Unless you’re more of a party animal than Liz said.
Alyssa: Not a party animal. But yeah, awake. Hard to sleep lately.
Taylor: I get that.
Taylor: I don’t want to make it weird…er, but I just feel like I should tell you, in case you need to hear it, that Liz really loved you.
Taylor: She talked about you all the time. You meant a lot to her.
Taylor: Alyssa? Sorry, if that was too much.
Alyssa: No, that’s. Thanks. I did need that.
Taylor: Okay. Cool.
Alyssa: Same for you. I could tell how important you were to her even without, like, being around. If that makes sense. I mean, I’m sure you know.
Taylor: I do know. But it still helps.
Taylor: This helps too.
Alyssa: Yeah.

 

January 31

Anastasia sucked.”

Isaac ignores me. Or he didn’t hear me, since I’m whispering from the row behind him. No talking in choir rehearsal, even if Ms. Brush is working with the sopranos across the room. I kick the underside of his chair.

“What?” he mutters.

“I said Anastasia sucked. The bootleg sucked, you couldn’t hear half the dialogue, and the show itself was like—weird and bad.”

“I thought you loved it.”

“So what?” I poke him between the shoulder blades. “You obviously didn’t love it. Why would you act like you did?”

“I don’t know.” A small shrug. “I was trying to be nice to you.”

“I don’t want you to be nice to me. I just want you to be a person. A real person. And treat me like a real person. A person who has other friends and feels sad when they die and watches bad musicals for fun. Stop making this an imaginary friendship.”

“I’m—not trying to.”

“I know. Prove it.”

It comes out a little too loud and Ms. Brush finally looks our way. “Ms. Robinson,” she snaps, “you and Mr. Siegel can talk later, when I’m not directing my choir. Yes?”

“Yes,” I call back, with my best apology face. “We can talk later.” I tug the hem of the sleeve of his T-shirt, and he exhales in a way that probably means we’ll be fine.

*     *     *

Alyssa: Can I ask you another question? Sorry, lots of questions.
Taylor: No worries.
Alyssa: What was Liz’s last name?
Taylor: Walsh.
Taylor: Did you want the link to her obit?
Alyssa: I’ll look it up. Maybe not today.

*     *     *

I last 35 minutes before I Google for Liz’s obituary. It sucks.

Elizabeth Caitlyn Walsh passed away on January 10. She was a junior at Lakefront High School. She is survived by her parents, Mr. Stephen Walsh and Mrs. Joanna Walsh. Elizabeth was a joy to all who knew her and will be missed by many friends and loved ones as she joins the angels.

Then, for the first time, I type Liz Walsh into Facebook’s search. Her profile picture is a side-profile selfie, black-and-white, intensely dramatic in a way that may or may not be ironic. It’s so Liz. It hurts.

The posts on her wall hurt in a really different way.

Lizzie girl can’t believe you’re gone!!!! You were my best friend, don’t know what I’ll do without you!!!

the world and fourth block aren’t the same without you…rip

BFFs 4 life (and after) R.I.P.

thanks for the sunset yesterday!! Don’t know how you know I needed that xo

There’s one post from a Taylor, but it’s a grainy picture of a rainbow with some fake-cursive text about smiling from heaven. Definitely not Liz’s Taylor. Of course, there isn’t a post from Liz’s Alyssa, either.

*    *     *

Alyssa: The facebook…
Taylor: Oh, God, no. You saw the facebook.
Alyssa: Who even are those people? I mean, I obviously don’t know them, but…who are
they?
Taylor: “the world needs to know I was the dead girl’s bestest friend”
Alyssa: As if that wasn’t you.
Taylor: It was YOU.
Alyssa: We can totally go BFF halfsies. It’s what angel Liz would want.
Taylor: Maybe she’ll send us a thunderstorm to confirm.
Taylor: My last name’s Burke, by the way. Just so you know.
Alyssa: Alyssa Robinson. I like Aly.
Taylor: Nice to “meet” you, Aly.
Alyssa: Nice to meet you, Taylor Burke.

 

Catey Miller lives with her wonderful husband and hound dog in Wilmington, North Carolina. She received her BFA and MFA in creative writing from the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. Aside from writing, she enjoys making cards, experimenting with eyeshadow, playing bass in her church band, and watching and tweeting about lots of TV. You can read more melancholy YA short stories from her in Youth Imagination, Young Adult Review Network (YARN), and Hunger Mountain.

The Players

[fiction]

Feed

“#DrunkAsFuckGirl”

DAF!!! LMAO!

idk how i feel about what’s going on, but you should of not drank so much…

ur last night on earth wuz a good one. way to go down! DAF!!!

we should of charged that bitch extra!

some people just deserve to have dicks rubbed on their face. LOL!!!

dont wanna be THAT girl tomorrow morning…

how do you brush a giant wad of cum out of your hair? ask the new girl… ROTFL!

who is this drunk bitch on the floor? Is that HER pee? I dont think so…

Drunk Sluts are the BEST!!!!!!!!!!!!!

im sorry, theres NO WAY you sleep through getting stuffed in the butt. hard to wake a DRUNKASFUCK girl I guess!!!

i have no sympathy for whores.

does anyone even know her name?

*     *     *

Player # 82: Lineman

“He/Him, She/Her”

I know what it feels like to be the new kid in school. I was the new kid in school once, but that was way back in eighth grade. I was a fat kid and that’s never good in general, but it’s really bad when you’re in middle school, and it’s really, really bad when you’re in a middle school where you don’t even know anybody.

It took me one day to become famous in this town. It’s not hard in a town like this. Place is so fuckin’ small and nothing ever happens here, so if you have a bad day and someone’s busting your balls about being a fat kid and you smash his face in with your elbow so that blood sprays all over the place—and I mean all over the place, all over our shirts and faces and the desks—then you become famous pretty quick. Some of the girls were screaming because it was such a mess in there. I was sent to the principal’s office. I heard later that they had to get the class out of the room so the janitors could clean up all the blood everywhere. That kind of scene is hard to forget, sticks with people, so like I said, I became famous pretty quick.

After busting that kid’s face open, he left me alone. That was the good part. The bad part is that I kind of got this reputation for being a real tough guy. Funny thing is, I’m not. I mean, I’m big and everything—I’m six feet tall and I weigh a lot and I’m on the football team and all that—but I actually felt pretty shitty after I elbowed that kid. I almost started crying on my way to the principal’s office, and it wasn’t because I knew I was going to get in trouble—and believe me, I got in a lot of fucking trouble for that—it was because I was really mad at that prick for making me feel like shit about myself. The last thing I wanted to do was break the kid’s nose—I just wanted to shut him the fuck up. It worked and everything, breaking that kid’s nose, but it didn’t make me feel any better about getting teased for being fat.

After getting with those two guys, I don’t know, it all just got easier to give in to more and more guys. No use fighting it—one way or another, they’ll make you feel like it was all your idea…

When I came back after suspension, though, a weird thing happened: I was a king around school. Busting that kid’s nose was like the best thing for making friends because, after that, I got all kinds of invitations to do things, like go to other dudes’ houses and sit with them during the basketball games, all from guys I still hang out with now. But that elbow to the face became a running joke. It was like, Don’t fuck with HIM or he’ll bust your face up with his elbow, and suddenly, forever, I’m HIM, the big kid who busts people up with his elbow, even though I haven’t done anything like that since seventh grade. Not even close.

The problem is that it’s a level of respect that’s hard to get from guys you go to school with and you can’t be like, “OK, guys, let’s stop with the breaking noses stuff,” because then you’re a pussy, and it’s way better to be the guy who breaks noses than it is to be a pussy. At least when you’re in high school. And because I’m big and on the football team, people just assume all kinds of things about me that aren’t true.

Like, they assume that I was part of what happened after the party that night just because I’m friends with those guys. Well, I wasn’t a part of it. I might’ve busted some kid’s face open for calling me fat in the eighth grade, sure, but I don’t do mean shit to girls and I don’t think it’s cool to do mean shit to girls.

Except, you wouldn’t know it from the way I acted that night. I was in the pictures a bunch of people took with their cell phones, holding a beer in one hand and doing stupid shit, like giving the thumbs up or pumping my fist with my other hand, like I was celebrating something really awesome while this girl is laying there passed out in the background, arms and legs all twisted up like a rag doll, missing half her clothes.

I see those pictures and I think about how she went from being the new kid in school to everybody talking about her over a weekend. Because of this thing that happened, she’s not a person anymore—she’s just this story everybody is telling about her and the story is everywhere. You say “she” and “her” and everybody knows exactly who you’re talking about. And because of those pictures, everybody’s talking about me and my friends, too. I didn’t do anything to the girl, but I’m the shithead in the background, laughing, drinking, and pumping his fist.

I would like to think that I wouldn’t have acted like that if I hadn’t been so wasted, but even that doesn’t make me feel any better, just like busting that kid’s nose didn’t make me feel any better in seventh grade.

I don’t even remember his name.

*     *     *

The Slutty Girl

“The Wide Receiver”

Last summer, the football players made a list. It included all the girls from the soccer team. We were all given really sexual names. Wanna know what my name was? “The Wide Receiver.” They call me that because, basically, I’ve hooked up with a lot of guys. It’s not a big deal, really—no one takes that sorta stuff seriously anymore.

At least not if you’re a guy.

If you’re a guy, you can hook up with as many girls as you want. The more the better. If you’re a girl, though, it’s not the same. You’re not supposed to hook up with a lot of guys. But if you don’t, then you’re a cock tease for giving guys blue balls. Guys hate blue balls.

Kinda funny, but they named one of the girls “Blue Balls,” too.

I guess I’d rather be The Wide Receiver than Blue Balls. I’d rather be the girl who gets guys off than the girl who gets guys mad. I’ve gotten guys mad before.

There were two guys in particular. And when they get mad at you like that, you don’t know what to do. Giving in is just sorta easier because it’s not like you can push ’em off you or bite down really hard, even if you think pushing off or biting down would make them stop doing what they’re doing.

After getting with those two guys, I don’t know, it all just got easier to give in to more and more guys. No use fighting it—one way or another, they’ll make you feel like it was all your idea, to the point that you’re not even sure they’re wrong, to the point that you’re not even sure you hadn’t put the idea in their heads in the first place.

And then there you are, right in the middle of it, all confused and so fucking awkward. Too late to stop at the moment but far enough along that you might as well just get through the whole pathetic scene of it: him, humping away, making all those awful noises and spastic movements; you, scrunching up your face and trying not to move too much, just waiting for the guy to finish.

At least when they’re done, they’re not so fucking mad anymore.

*     *     *

The Girl in English Class

“The List”

I wasn’t one of the girls on the girls’ soccer team, on The List the football players made. I guess I’m not pretty enough or don’t have big enough boobs or whatever for that kind of attention.

Mostly people tell me I’m the kind of girl you marry, or the kind of girl guys want to be best friends with. I’m not sure what that means, but my guy friends tell me that’s some sort of compliment—it’s a compliment not to be hot. They say I don’t give off the kind of vibe that would make guys think they’d have a chance with me. I don’t know what that means, either, because I’m not stuck up and I like to go out on dates and get dressed up or whatever, but I guess I’m supposed to be relieved that I wasn’t on The List.

Two summers ago, in the weeks before classes started, the football players all came for the summer doubles, the practices that happen twice a day until the start of the season. They were waiting for a thunderstorm to pass one afternoon, so they all went to the locker room and wrote up this list of “positions” for the girls on the soccer team. I guess they thought they were being clever or something by assigning different sexual positions to each of the girls they wanted to get with. And after each of the names, they talked about what the name meant, as if it weren’t already clear.

You’d think the teachers, one of them at least, would cut the girl some slack or, I don’t know, try to talk to her. But they didn’t.

One of the girls they called “The Wide Receiver” because, to use their words, “There’s not a wide hole she wouldn’t receive you with.” I thought it was pretty disgusting that they would say that about her. About anyone, really. She’s got a pretty well-known reputation for being a slut. I feel bad for her. I don’t know if that’s how I should feel about her, but I can’t help it because it doesn’t seem fair. If a guy gets with a lot of girls, he’s a hero, he gets praise from his friends—getting girls is like something for him to brag to his friends about. But it’s not the same for girls. If a girl does something with a guy and the details get out—and let’s face it, guys talk about this kind of stuff all the time, whether what they say is true or not—she’s supposed to be ashamed or embarrassed. I’m not sure why it works like that—I only know that it does.

The weirdest part of the whole thing was that the team didn’t even really get in trouble. I mean, The List was photocopied and left scattered all over the hallways, so everyone—and I mean everyone—saw it, even our teachers, not that any of them would talk about it. The school made this half-assed attempt to address the “behavioral concerns” by sending a letter home to our parents explaining the incident and assuring them that “appropriate measures” would be taken. No one knows what those “measures” were, which most likely means nothing happened at all.

Well, one thing happened: one of the girls ended up in the hospital for cutting herself. They called this girl “The Full Back” because, to use the boys’ words, “She has the kind of ass they want to back up into them.” Her parents pulled her out of school the next day. It was after that that the administration sent the letter home. Last I heard, she’s at a private school, three towns over. She plays soccer there now.

The story landed on the news and everything, but, just a few weeks later, the whole thing just blew over. That’s the way things go around here, and before we know it, that’s what’s going to happen with this story too. It’s a big deal right now, what happened to the new girl, but soon no one’ll even remember what happened and we’ll all be on to the next thing, whatever it is. I know this because there have already been attempts to sweep this under the rug to protect the football coach or the boys in trouble.

People around town are already acting like the whole thing’s been blown out of proportion. I overheard two men talking in the grocery store saying how “it’s such a shame” that this one incident is going to follow these two boys their whole lives, and how it’s going to “ruin their chances” at a scholarship and a football career, and how “they’re only boys doing what boys do,” and that “they’re young” and “don’t know any better…”

That’s what a lot of people around here are saying.

And when The List came out, it was the same thing. I remember hearing kids at school be like, Oh, that’s just guy talk, or, Oh, that’s the kind of things guys that age do. Even the girls’ soccer coach said things like, you know, Boys are stupid at this age and they’re just being boys. I’m not sure he knew what to say, but he could have done better than that because it didn’t make any of us feel any better about the whole thing. He did his best to have the football team shut down for the season, though. I’ll give him that.

He started a petition and everything, and though I can’t prove this, I’m pretty sure he’s the reason the story got onto the local news. I think he was hoping for some support from the people who live around here, but the football coach just rode the whole thing out and now no one’s talking about The List anymore. Coach is old as the town itself, and so many people in this town love him and his winning record that I’m pretty sure him and his boys could get away with anything. The girls’ soccer coach was only in his second season. He resigned at the end of the year.

I don’t know how true that is, though. The whole thing seemed pretty sketchy, him leaving at the end of the year like that, especially with a winning record of his own. But it’s not like we could ask anybody about it. Adults don’t really tell us the truth about anything—they don’t think we know how to handle things, so, instead, they just lie or pretend like nothing is happening until they think we’ve moved on. Most of the time, riding it out doesn’t work—I don’t know why adults don’t get that.

The day or two leading up to “The Full Back” hurting herself, I remember her getting kicked out of class for refusing to participate in the discussion. She wasn’t rude or anything, but the teacher threw her out anyway. The teacher asked her some stupid question about The Scarlet Letter and the girl just looked at her. When the teacher asked her the question again, she shrugged her shoulders and played with the wire spirals in her notebook. That pissed the teacher off pretty good and before we knew it, the girl was gathering her stuff to leave.

You’d think the teachers, one of them at least, would cut the girl some slack or, I don’t know, try to talk to her. But they didn’t. And it’s not like they didn’t know what the football players wrote about her. Wearing baggy sweatpants and refusing to participate in class—I guess those weren’t big enough things for people to notice. But cut yourself up in the girls’ bathroom on the second floor and that will get some attention.

I’m ashamed to admit it now, but, up until “The Full Back” cut her arms up with a razorblade, I felt pretty shitty that I wasn’t on that list. It’s one of those things: if you’re on The List, you feel like shit, and if you’re not on The List, you feel like shit. I’m not sure why it works like that—I only know that it does.

*     *     *

Lineman

“Quinn and the Kitten”

Now that the pictures are all getting out, pretty much everyone who was there that night is in trouble. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t do anything because what a lot of people are saying is that if you were there, you were a part of the whole thing, whether you did anything to that girl or not. And I want to be clear that I didn’t do anything.

Well, I laughed. Is that bad?

Is laughing the same as doing something?

It’s hard to know in these situations. I’ve been in them before.

It’s not exactly the same thing, but before I moved to this town, I watched one of my friends shoot another friend in the head. He killed him. I was there and I saw the whole fucked up thing of it, but just like this party, I didn’t do anything. I didn’t pick the fight that started the whole thing and I certainly didn’t pull the trigger. Fuck, I didn’t even want to see the gun in the first place. Things just got way out of hand so fast.

Adults don’t really tell us the truth about anything—they don’t think we know how to handle things, so instead, they just lie or pretend like nothing is happening until they think we’ve moved on.

It started out pretty simple enough. It was after school one day, we’d just started seventh grade, and Quinn—that was the kid’s name—Quinn told us he had a gun. Well, actually, Quinn’s grandfather had a gun, but Quinn knew it wasn’t locked. He just wanted to show us, that was all. I wasn’t dying to see it or anything—if I’m being honest, guns scare me.

I didn’t play it like that, obviously. You can’t let shit like that out with your guy friends, even at that age. And the need to prove you’re tough only gets to be more and more important as you get older. It’s like this unwritten rule that all guys know starting from really young. We don’t talk about it, but it’s there. And you’re fucking dead if you even think about talking about things like being scared. You can’t be sad, either. It’s all gotta come off as pissed because being pissed, that’s a feeling guys understand.

Sometimes I think it’s the only feeling guys understand.

But Scotty? He didn’t play it right—he let on that he was scared. He tried saying things like, “C’mon, Quinn, we shouldn’t be up here,” and like, “Your grandfather’s gonna be pissed if we’re in here.”

See? Pissed.

And that was, like, all Quinn needed. His whole attitude towards Scotty changed and he was saying shit to embarrass him, even looking to me for approval. I didn’t say anything, but I was laughing. “Oh, you bein’ a pussy, Scotty? A fuckin’ pussy. It’s not even loaded, you little bitch.” Guys hate to be called names like that. I don’t think there’s anything worse. Faggot, maybe. So guys’ll do just about anything to prove that they’re not faggots and pussies, that we’re all men, real men.

And there was Quinn, kinda shoving Scotty on the shoulder every time he called him a pussy or a faggot. It was like Quinn wanted him to feel the words every time he said them: Faggot. Pussy. Homo. Bitch. It started to get pretty intense after like a minute or two of that. I can’t say how long it went on for—felt like fucking forever. Quinn was antagonizing Scotty enough that I could see Scotty start to turn red and breathe heavy through his nose. He might have been trying not to cry because forget it if you fucking cry in front of your boys. They’ll never let you live that shit down.

I mean, friends are really important, but sometimes, I felt like they weren’t good for me. Like, they push me to do shit that I wouldn’t do, and afterwards, I don’t know why I did what I did, only that I have to, like, deal with the fact that I did it. Quinn was one of those kids—he pushed me to do all sorts of things—and I could see that he was pushing Scotty pretty hard. I kinda expected Scotty to lose his shit on Quinn.

I saw that happen once, too.

It was like a year before I came to this school, so we were young, like ten or eleven, maybe. Me, Quinn, and Scotty were walking to the park to shoot some hoops. Quinn was dribbling the basketball when we came upon this little kitten. It was probably one from this crazy cat lady who lived down the street from another kid we knew. She had all kinds of cats just running around the streets of our town and new kittens showed up all the time. Quinn saw one—couldn’t have been more than a week old, it was so small—and he bent down and made a sweet noise. He held out his hand for her to come over to him, which she did. Scotty and me bent down to pet her and try to play with her too.

Then Quinn did the kind of thing Quinn used to do: he stood up real fast, brought the basketball over his head and slammed it down on her tiny skull. Blood and guts shot out onto our knees and sneakers. The kitten let out this awful noise. It was fucking disgusting.

Scotty stood up and screamed, blood all over his hands, trying to beat the shit out of Quinn. I remember Quinn laughing, running in circles around me, trying to deflect Scotty with the bloody basketball.

I just sort of stood there.

When the two of them were tired out from running, they were hunched over, hands on their knees, trying to catch their breath. Scotty looked at Quinn and said, “You’re so fucked up,” then snatched the ball from under Quinn’s left foot and punted it down the street. Quinn walked after it. Me and Scotty walked in the other direction.

We didn’t talk the whole way home because, like, what do you say after something like that? I remember thinking that Scotty looked as shitty as I felt: he was sweaty and dirty, covered in kitten guts and blood, and crying. I didn’t let on that I was upset too—and looking back, I kinda wish I did—but when I got to my room, I cried.

I cried hard.

Cried like a bitch.

I never told anyone about that.

The day that Quinn killed the cat felt weirdly like a warning of what happened the day Scotty shot Quinn in the head: the two of us standing there, breathing heavy, covered in some other body’s blood and guts, crying. It all happened as fast as Quinn and that basketball, Scotty just fucking snapped and grabbed the gun from Quinn’s hand, aimed and pulled the trigger of a gun that wasn’t supposed to be loaded. Turns out Quinn’s grandfather had a terminal disease and his gun was part of some plan to off himself.

I read once that’s how boys kill themselves most often, gun to the head, a sure thing. Girls do things like take a bunch of sleeping pills or drink mouthwash and then, like, text their friends to tell them about it right after, so they always get saved. It’s like they don’t really want to do it, but they want people to know they do. Guys? Guys are just the opposite—they’d rather die before being saved. Guys will pretend everything is fine and then, one day, the school has to contact everyone’s parents to tell them about the tragedy.

It was shortly after Scotty’s suicide—by hanging; Scotty’s grandfather didn’t have a gun—that I came here, to this shitty little town. My parents were worried that I might do something to myself because I always seemed to be mixed up in things, like Quinn and the kitten, and then later, Scotty and Quinn.

And now the thing with that girl. Not involved directly, but always there, somehow, never knowing what to do.

I wonder why that is.

 

Lauren Marie Schmidt is the author of three previous collections of poetry: Two Black Eyes and a Patch of Hair MissingThe Voodoo Doll Parade, selected for the Main Street Rag Author’s Choice Chapbook Series; and Psalms of The Dining Room, a sequence of poems about her volunteer experience at a soup kitchen in Eugene, Oregon. Schmidt’s fourth collection, Filthy Labors, a series of poems about her work at a transitional housing program for unwed mothers, was published by Northwestern University Press/Curbstone Press in 2017. She is currently at work on a young adult novel. The Players, as published in Lunch Ticket, is comprised of non-consecutive chapters in a larger work-in-progresswww.laurenmarieschmidt.com

Beethoven For Chinese New Year

[fiction]

Mā explained over the phone: a violist sprained his wrist, tumbling after a volleyball, and the octet needed to practice with a replacement before Chinese school celebrated chūnjié tomorrow. She had a habit of molding requests into commands after several hours, so I saved time by consenting. It did excuse me from the January 2003 SAT post-mortem in Panera with my friends. Grace, thoughts on the last analogy in the second reading section? Sorry, can’t answer, my mom’s here to pick me up, have a good Saturday.

The building wasn’t reserved—Chinese school was as Sunday as church and football—so mā drove me to someone’s house as I stared out the window for thirty minutes. Not to look at anything—staring to seem preoccupied and insulate myself from conversation. She wasn’t talking anyway. For the past week, my parents had exhausted all their words; bà flinging accusations and mā with her guarded style, arguing about why they had been arguing, because neither remembered that Jake blowing off his seventh grade history project had set off this latest fight. I stayed out. It wasn’t my job to play couples therapist, ask why they chose each other, and hear, “I made a mistake.” Maybe things changed when they immigrated; I was too young to recall Beijing as home, not as a vacation. My joke was their marriage lay in the difference between the Chinese-American and average U.S. divorce rates, and they waited for a special occasion to narrow the gap: when we were in college, or in med school, or trying to survive on-call. They might accelerate the process if it helped my college application essays.

 

Framed on the wall was my favorite photo of her: a black-and-white shot of a man in a tunic standing next to his bicycle, in which teenage mā wearing pigtails had wandered into the upper-right corner by accident.

 

Last week, my viola teacher had grasped my shoulder and asked, “How long will this slump last?” and I had promised to work harder for my next seating audition, skirting what he meant. This week, a gig for fun. The event became thrilling, redemptive even, when framed that way. It sounded like the fluff some seniors wrote to colleges, a salute to the Western canon like it was a compendium of Chinese-American national anthems.

I didn’t suspect our destination until we rounded the corner and the faded cyan paneling slid into view. In the breeze, the lawn’s one tree waved with familiarity. We hadn’t visited shūshu’s house in six years, and my parents hadn’t mentioned him since. My mind had left him behind with blacktop recess and chocolate milk cartons.

I didn’t understand.

“Grace, dào le,” mā said, without explanation. “I’m going to be shopping, so call bà to pick you up.” Meaning he didn’t object to us being here.

Mute, I grabbed my viola case from the trunk and dragged it along the twisting pathway sheathed in ice. Where other boots had cut across the lawn, grass limped out from beneath the snow. My fingerprint melting in the doorbell’s frost made me realize my gloves were in the car, but before I could go back to grab them, the door opened, mā drove off, and the draft nudged me into the warmth, my feet tiptoeing around the scatter of shoes and instrument cases.

His plaid dress shirt, his silver-stained smile, his leisurely posture. Only the wisps of gray in his hair proved shūshu hadn’t risen from my memory. Shūshu wasn’t actually my uncle; we just called him that, and I had never learned his name.

“Grace, nĭ zhǎng zhème dà le! What grade are you in now?” I mumbled I was a junior and stepped into his embrace. “It’s been that long since you switched from violin? How is viola going?” No trace of hesitance or estrangement inflected his voice.

“It’s okay. Doing New Jersey Youth Symphony right now, had All-State in the fall. I’m not first chair or anything like that,” I said, eyes lowered as I unfastened my case.

“Are you enjoying it? As a kid, you hated playing away from the melody.”

“Oh, I guess I grew out of that. I’m happy playing the viola.” I hurried into the living room where the rest of the musicians gathered, all of them Chinese: two adult violinists including shūshu, two teenage violinists I had met through All-State, one adult cellist, a teenage cellist, an adult violist, and me. Before the teenage violist’s injury, the group had been made of teachers and handpicked students, to mimic a passing down of legacies.

“This is Grace. She was one of my best and favorite violin students,” shūshu said. Not knowing whether to bow or wave, I did half of both, a habit picked up from mā. A round of introductions and gratitude, another bow-wave-smile, then gravity sank me into the spot where I once sat for lessons and the music resumed.

I didn’t expect classical music for a Chinese New Year performance crafted around the idea of inheritance, though not having to foray into a new genre helped. Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 4, Movement 1, doubling up on each of the parts. It wasn’t in my repertoire, but my sight reading impressed in auditions and the start of orchestra season, until others overtook me after enough practice. I delivered notes on cue, in rhythm, like a machine directed by the sheet music. Except sometimes I overpowered the first violins, shūshu in particular, or overcorrected into timidity. His and my sounds leapt into the air and crashed heads, screeching to the ground, or we’d both defer, stiffening the music. Solos were easy with no one else to worry about, and the momentum of an orchestra washed over individual stumbles, but a quartet or octet had to balance every person’s voice and present it as effortless to the audience.

After rehearsal, people complimented my technical proficiency despite the late notice. They were too polite to mention my lack of artistry or my uninspiring tone—a functional sound, as my viola teacher put it. The adults left while the teenagers waited for their parents and talked about school, our music instructors, how we celebrated Chinese New Year. The cellist had aunts, uncles, cousins, and even grandparents living in America, so every year they gathered in Houston, Texas; Irvine, California; or Edison, New Jersey, to see each other.

I had mā, bà, and Jake; no one else. Sometimes we passed the holiday by ourselves, and sometimes we attended a family friend’s party, but either way I read a book in the corner to wait it out. Red envelopes and karaoke, feasts and CCTV specials—it didn’t mean much, the people were the same as the other three hundred sixty-four days. The big family reunion Chinese New Year only happened in third grade, when we flew to Beijing. There was one hour, my favorite memory of mā, when she held my hand as we guided firecrackers out of her family’s apartment window and, with giggles and mischievous smiles, dropped them six stories into the car alarms caroling on the road. Framed on the wall was my favorite photo of her: a black-and-white shot of a man in a tunic standing next to his bicycle, in which teenage mā wearing pigtails had wandered into the upper-right corner by accident. I pointed it out. She smiled and pretended not to hear. I didn’t know that was the final picture of her brother, or what the Cultural Revolution was. She didn’t tell me; no one in our family would. Her English-speaking friend visiting from Michigan had to help me understand.

Gradually, shūshu’s living room emptied, and he emerged from the kitchen with a mug of tea, which I declined.

“Grace, I want to ask something,” he said. Me too. “Why did you quit the violin? Was I too strict?”

“No, nothing like that. Our lessons were fine, my interests just changed.” He held his palm above the vapor rising from his cup, withdrew it, and blew across the liquid jasmine surface. We sat on the couch where mā had been whenever she attended a lesson. Relics of those days decorated the room: a ragged and stiff teddy-bear, reams of sheet music, the four toy pendulums suspended in a row.

“How’s school?” he asked, after a while.

“Busy. You know, junior year, it was probably like that for David, too.” Shūshu’s son was old enough, in high school when it happened, so maybe he could help me understand what was going on. What I was doing here. “He’s in college, right? Is he coming home for Chinese New Year?”

Shūshu took a long sip of tea.

“He has a medical school interview in Michigan, so he’s spending it with his mom and stepdad in Ann Arbor.” I used to love David’s sketches and paintings, which still hung in the hallways.

I waited for the next question that never came. We weren’t going to talk about it; he probably didn’t suspect I remembered there was something to talk about.

*          *          *

Around fourth grade, the volume of my violin swelled to a deafening level. Shūshu diagnosed it as budding narcissism. After one lesson, he cooked me dinner because mā was working overtime that day, lectured about vanity, and warned me not to take music for granted. I nodded as if he was right, but the habit had grown from drowning out mā’s and bà’s arguments. They were worse in my childhood, and if I was gentle, their shouts invaded my practice.

Mā arrived mid-meal—hair tangled, face drained, and breath laced with her fifth cup of coffee—and asked if I wanted to keep eating. The two were gone when I finished. I waited with as much patience as a nine-year-old could muster before curiosity guided me toward the laughter bubbling from upstairs.

Mā was happy. She lay on the bed, her fingers draped around shūshu’s back. He was in his boxers; Mā was clothed. When she faced me, her smile became shock and his ease turned to alarm. “Grace,” they both said. “Grace.”

She hurried me out of the room and back downstairs. She went back up briefly and came back down. She held my hand walking to the car and helped me get in, retrieved my violin after she realized we had forgotten it, shoved it into the trunk, and drove off. I held onto the image of mā, radiant, as long as I could.

When it dimmed away, I asked, “Why was he in his boxers?”

“He wasn’t.”

“But—”

“No, Grace, you saw wrong. He wasn’t in his boxers.” I believed her for months, maybe years.

The red glow of the stoplight bathed the car interior as mā turned to face me. I mistook the white in her skin as fury, and it was only years later that I understood it was terror. “Grace, what you said was very wrong. You shouldn’t say it again. Do you understand?”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay, just don’t say he was in his boxers again. Don’t tell me, or bà, or anyone.” Scoldings had always made me cry, but for the first time, not one sob escaped into the silence. The red light receded into a distant green dot.

“Okay.” I kept my word.

I don’t remember the rest of the day. We continued with violin lessons until the end of elementary school, when I switched to the viola. There was no sight, no mention of shūshu after that, as if he had never existed.

*          *          *

Bà called me when he arrived. He didn’t come to the door and meet shūshu; he never left the car, whether he picked me up from a music lesson or a friend’s house. The neighbors’ trees masked the moon and the streetlamps, so there was nothing to illuminate the icy path as I slipped toward the car. I almost climbed into the backseat, before he asked what I was doing, and I pretended my intent had been to place my viola case there instead of the trunk.

Sometimes a car’s headlights pierced through the night and a familiar street name or shop flickered, a memory flashing by. My eyes used the light to search bà’s face. The weariness of a day playing tennis and the impatience of a long drive home; frustration with the truck in front and a forward stare hardened from days spent yelling. Nothing unusual. It had been easy to ignore with music to be played and Chinese New Year to complain about, but with my bow and viola locked up, I had only the windy breaths of cars passing by to distract me from wondering what bà knew, or if he knew. I waited for him to ask, mention, say anything about shūshu.

After ten minutes he asked, “Did it not go well?”

“Go well at the lesson? Rehearsal, I mean.” The heat from my face could have melted the snow stuck on the window.

“The SATs. You haven’t mentioned them.” His face was stoic, focused on the road. He lacked the tension or surliness I had expected to hear in his voice. “Mā said you didn’t talk about the SATs to her, either.”

“Oh, yeah.” It felt like days had passed since I had sat down for the test. “It was fine. Math went well, reading section was harder. Still good, I think.” I launched into a detailed explanation to alleviate his worry.

If bà had found out, it would’ve been around the switch to viola. There was arguing back then; there never wasn’t. It was a constant buzz in the background, like city bustle or fans on a summer day. I couldn’t pinpoint which of it happened when I was ten and which at thirteen; it blurred into a single period of time. The phrases I could recall—”There’s nothing to talk about!” he shouted—were my cues to hurry into my room, not stay for the rest.

 

For the rest of the year, Angela would go back to tap and jazz, the girl onstage would return to the piano, but at least they presented something Chinese for Chinese New Year. What was the octet passing down? Beethoven with mā’s ex-lover now and Beethoven in concerts later and Beethoven forever.

 

For dinner, the four of us folded bāozi together. The activity had lost its luster for me years ago, but Jake had continued to wrap them with sloppy enthusiasm, until now. He was the same age as I had been, and I saw his excitement waning. Twelve was a special age for the zodiac after all. At the table, our parents spoke frequently to us and rarely to each other, as was common when a fight had dragged on. They passed the eye contact test, though, which was my version of Groundhog Day: an early spring, or six more days of quarreling.

“You’re using too much water,” bà said. My dumpling unraveled on the yellow foam tray. My next one was too dry, and without a word, I surrendered my mess to mā. In one motion, she swooped the meat into a new wrap, brushed her finger against the water’s surface, swirled it around the wrap’s edge, and folded. She had breezed through the night with a serenity untouched by her usual caffeinated trembling. There were no questions about shūshu, not a single word or acknowledgment.

“Are your hands okay?” mā asked as she plucked another mangled dumpling from my palm. “They must be tired. Kǎoshì all morning, viola all afternoon.”

“I’m okay.” Almost a mention, but no one paused, and the conversation moved on, leaving me to fumble with another dumpling until it tore. Bà feigned interest in Jake rambling about the NFL, and mā continued acting like she was through a second glass of wine. “Sorry, can I go upstairs?” I asked. “Shūshu’s—the recital—it’s been half a day since knowing, about playing this piece. I need more time to practice. Can I go upstairs and eat later?”

“Okay,” mā said.

“Can I go, too?”

“Stay here, Jake.”

In my room, I steadied my hands through a section of the score while pacing through my observations of mā, bà, and shūshu that day: words, tones, gestures, facial expressions; mā’s weariness, bà’s brevity, shūshu persevering through his interrogations; anything that might hint what bà knew, what mā wanted, shūshu’s intentions, mā’s intentions, mā’s feelings, my role. If mā and shūshu had hid the truth from bà, or if the three believed they were keeping a secret from me; if tomorrow served as an excuse to reunite, or if I had been volunteered as a peace offering. All plausible, nothing convincing.

Jake’s fist bashed against my door three times, and without waiting, he creaked it open, as if he was going to leave after delivering his message, but over the course of his sentence, “Mā and bà want me to tell you that you’re playing too loudly,” he slid into my room and closed the door behind him. “Sorry,” I said.

“You never practice anymore.” He said it like an accusation. My bow jabbed toward the door, but he didn’t budge. “I heard shūshu’s playing too?”

Jake had been six when I quit violin, so he probably had a couple memories, shūshu driving him to a doctor’s appointment or bringing him candy, that he had forgotten until today. Curiosity, not concern. A week from now he’d forget again, unless I wanted to say guess what, mā cheated on bà when we were kids, and keep him remembering for the rest of his life. Secrecy ran in the family.

“I have to get this right by tomorrow,” I said. “Go work on your history project, you can’t take an incomplete forever.” He left, and I worked through the music until mā came in and placed a plate of fresh bāozi on my desk.

*          *          *

“We’ll be back around eight. Turn the TV off when you hear the garage open,” I told Jake before we left, guessing he would flip on the Super Bowl and ignore his schoolwork. My slot wasn’t until after intermission, so we sat in the audience for the show’s first half. Mā led our way into and through the room, walking past the surprised waves of several schoolmates who hadn’t seen me at Chinese school since sixth grade. I spotted shūshu stranded among a crowd of empty seats in the far back corner. We cut through one of the middle rows and stopped near the end, next to bà’s friend and her family, with shūshu’s presence lurking five rows back. “Chūnjié kuàilè,” all of us said. It wasn’t really for another week.

Bà swapped rumors about high school seniors and college applications, and it reminded me that next year, my name would join the gossip of dinner parties and Chinese hair salons among parents I never met, in towns I never visited. Mā usually participated, but she remained quiet. Not at peace, like yesterday. Her quiet had the quality of paralysis.

For the first act, costumed children shuffled around and recited three poems bà had me memorize too, as a kid. This was the first time I parsed their words and understood them; from my own mouth it had felt like a song I was too busy playing to hear myself. Dancers lined up second, crouching with their backs facing us, but as the music began and their red gowns spun, the face of my friend Angela beamed at the crowd. When I asked her about it later, it turned out she went every weekend, even after graduating Chinese school, to help instruct the younger dancing classes.

Mā left to find the bathroom. As she walked behind, I locked my head forward, terrified she and shūshu would catch me if I turned back, and counted the seconds until her return: ten, twenty, one hundred. I reached two hundred before giving up. She didn’t know where the bathroom was; it could take her twenty minutes. Bà snoozed in his chair, his head limping toward the right.

A girl strummed an instrument I had never seen outside China, with the sound of a harp and the shape of a keyboard-sized guitar neck. In my program, all the acts were written in unrecognizable Chinese except mine: Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 4, Movement 1, printed in English. A blurb underneath presumably mentioned the inheritance theme. People probably saw that and snickered; I would have, too. For the rest of the year, Angela would go back to tap and jazz, the girl onstage would return to the piano, but at least they presented something Chinese for Chinese New Year. What was the octet passing down? Beethoven with mā’s ex-lover now and Beethoven in concerts later and Beethoven forever.

Mā came back and whispered into my ears, “Shūshu wants you to go warm up with him and the others after this one. He says to meet by the back corner.”

I was the first one there. “Ready?” he asked as the lights dimmed and the girl bowed. “Let’s do a couple scales together, to help us play in tune.”

That was probably the moment, the two of us shielded by darkness and our voices cloaked by applause; the moment to dust off six years of silence; a moment flitting past Earth before it slung off into space—gone.

“Sorry, I don’t say much when nervous,” I said. We exchanged a few words during warmups to make adjustments, but for the most part he left me alone after that.

Onstage, my mind split off my viola. My thoughts drifted as my bow and fingers assembled the music on autopilot. How my seat was too up front and center, and people were watching my nose scrunch and my cheeks puff out, and some of them would take pictures or tease me at school. How the intensity of the light made me sweat, and a bead of sweat rolled down my neck into my dress, and this dress felt tight and scratchy today, and there was an itch on my side. How I wasn’t angled in a way I could sneak a glance at mā, to know which of us she looked at, or if bà monitored her for the same thing.

I didn’t hear the performance until the final note, when it rushed into my ear as a whole. Decent enough for the ordinary template of compliments. Not amazing, like I had hoped, or disastrous, like I had expected. Nothing worth remembering.

Our family lingered at the end for food and talk. My friends found me first, to congratulate each other, while shūshu spoke to a circle of parents and children too young to stray away. Mā stood on his left, and bà stood next to her. When our conversation turned toward the SATs, I tore myself from my friends and approached my parents’ backs.

“Before the schools closed,” shūshu said to one kid, “my goal was to enter college and study chemistry. Music wasn’t serious for me. But people heard Mozart coming from our basement and raided it and shredded the sheet music and took my violin away. Western music was counterrevolutionary, for capitalists.

“After we were sent to the countryside, I met Lí Rúhàn.” He spoke to the entire group now as he gestured at mā. She raised her right hand and wrapped her left around bà’s. I couldn’t see their faces from behind them. Either I hid in their shadows and listened unnoticed, or I could stand on the other side of the crowd and watch them as they watched me.

“She snuck her brother’s violin with her to the village, because he was the only one in her family who played; no one checked her stuff. And she brought books, too. Textbooks, even Western sheet music. She’s so smart, she knew the Cultural Revolution wouldn’t last, and she was determined to prepare. So nighttime we snuck to the river or muted a room by stuffing rags in the door gap, and we studied with moon or candlelight, and took breaks for music. Beethoven and Lí Rúhàn became my best friends. She gave me the violin when she went home.

“I studied and practiced in the morning, during meals, in my dreams. For ten years, until the gāokǎo came back. Chemistry didn’t interest me anymore; I had to become a musician. The Shanghai Conservatory admitted me, and several years later, so did Brooklyn.

“I’m not working in an orchestra, but there’s music every day of my life because of your support. Many of you chose me as your children’s violin instructor. Without you, the musicians of the past, and these young musicians of the future, I wouldn’t be here. Thank you.”

Mā’s right hand moved toward her head. I imagined it brushing tears from her eyes and concealing her smile. Bà’s impassive face was as stiff as their hands, gripped together in a lock.

Later that night, with my viola clamped between my chin and collarbone, I raised my bow toward the ceiling, pivoted toward my bedroom mirror, and forced my neck and shoulders to relax. “I live a good life,” I said, fingers shaking as my bow slid across the fourth string. My viola hummed the first note of Beethoven’s String Quartet. No. Four, but the E fell flat.

 

Morgan Song lives in Seattle, sneaking in time to write stories while pursuing a PhD in the sciences at the University of Washington. This is Morgan’s first published work, in either fiction or the sciences.